"Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait"

Susan Gerhard May 17, 2007

Is it a 21st-century portrait, a portrait of the 21st century? Not even widely released yet in the States, Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s 2006 Cannes-captivating “Zidane…” has already been reconsidered as both. On the side of portrait of the 21st century, we have a postmodern sound design that remixes the blood-sporting roar of an audience with the moody alienation of Mogwai, blows pixels up to poster-size as symbols of the high-tech media experience, and introduces a celebrity’s deeper consciousness with the most minimal, meta narration possible. On the side of 21st-century portrait, we have mega-soccer star Zidane himself, seen from 17 separate camera angles, yet reduced to the role of lonely worker in a brutal machine, the gladiator forced to reveal his basest instincts for the pleasure of an audience. The film’s unafraid of its contradictions, and aware of its multiple fascinations. The only thing we can be certain of in this beautifully rendered product — secured by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for three nights only, and already sold beyond capacity — is that it is in no way a “sports movie.”

For Hollywood, a movie that involves that other market for entertainment dollars — sport — is one in which it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Yet the protagonist always does win, one way or another, a moral victory at the very least. Narrative detours from the formula send you straight to the art house; Oscar has even recognized a few deviators from the code, but “Million Dollar Baby” is the exception that proves the rule. For Indiewood, sport movies are documentaries, which are not about whether you win or lose, but how you are played by the game. And you are always played. It’s a beautiful formula in skilled hands — “Hoop Dreams,” “Heart of the Game” — and a cliché in most other cases.

In the case of Parreno and Gordon, the sport movie is a platform for experimentation. The pair have already crossed over from museum to movie theater, but plan to return again: They have aspirations of showing the film in installation formats in museums all over the world. It’s been well noted that this is one movie about a soccer star that offers no heads talking, no emotions explained, no real cultural backstory, and no game-day titillations. But what they serve instead — a few choice snippets of Zidane’s memories (of childhood sport announcing, strange and particular anecdotes of what he remembers from the field) as chimeric bites of the athlete’s consciousness — may be just as satisfying to both cineastes who can consume a philosophical ode to the everyman behind a sport celebrity, as well as a YouTube generation familiar with viewing off-kilter and unsanctioned angles on the tried-and-true highlight reel.

What we see are a variety of camera angles and formats that don’t capture the balletic beauty of soccer, the kinetic power of the ball, the punctuating thrill of the goal, or the ecstasy of an audience, but the loneliness of the long-distance runner. The race is epic, a performance cycle with no end in sight. Zidane remains an enigma, and the filmmakers — as Douglas Gordon explained to Johnny Ray Huston of the San Francisco Bay Guardian in an interview published yesterday — wanted it that way.

Their cinema models ranged, they said, from the myth-making camerawork of ’70s NFL films by a generation of Vietnam vets to work by Bresson. They mentioned, in particular, Hellmuth Costard’s 1971 “Football as Never Before” George Best workup (not dissimilar in scope to this “Zidane”), and Kon Ichikawa’s 1965 “Tokyo Olympiad” as antecedents. As for their process, they won Zidane over on the project with a re-edit of “Garrincha, Joy of the People,” which Huston points out was directed by cinema novo pioneer Joaquim Pedro de Andrade.

An elliptical yet strangely enhanced experience viewing one of the most popularly viewed entertainments of all time, soccer, “Zidane” the movie’s three nights at YBCA probably won’t be enough. The filmmakers are looking for future distribution, and one hopes it returns to the U.S. — inside the white walls of a museum or popcorn-flavored art house or as an MLS post-game show, if need be — soon.