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No Story, Just a Hero: Zidane and the Art Game

Zoe Stillpass (1-2/2010)

Zoe Stillpass’s contextual analysis
 
‘Troppo vero!’ (‘Too real’)
Pope Innocent X’s response when he saw his portrait by Velazquez
 
 
In late May 2006, the popular French movie theater chain, Gaumont Pathé, was showing, as usual, several mainstream choices: X-Men: The Last Stand, Marie Antoinette, The Da Vinci Code, and the list goes on. But among these options was an odd man out, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a documentary of sorts about famous footballer Zinedine Zidane. At first glance, the movie doesn’t seem such a strange choice. To be sure, Zidane, quite the hero in France, is considered one of the greatest football players of all time. ‘Zizou’, as his fans fondly call him, is known for his exceptional talent and elegant moves on the field as well as his striking good looks. He certainly has star power. For the many French football lovers and general moviegoers that spring, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait promised a closer look, perhaps even an inside look, at the champion. But this film directed by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, artists largely unknown outside of the contemporary art world, is not your typical documentary. For the project, the artists set out ‘to make a feature film which follows the main protagonist of a story, without telling the story.’[1] Closely following Zidane throughout a single soccer match, the movie offers little information about the game and even the player. The images are gorgeous, even haunting, but not much happens in general, especially if you compare it to the predominant movie at the time. Someone looking for the drama of The Da Vinci Code or the action of X-Men must have been disappointed. Maybe that’s why it didn’t do so well in the box office.
 
Then again, so many different people saw Zidane for so many different reasons. The diverse milieus of its presentation and reference attest to its crossover appeal. It premiered both at Art Basel and at the Festival de Cannes, it can be bought on Amazon.com and has been reviewed in Le cahiers du cinéma, Artforum, personal blogs, Time Out, sports magazines, music magazines, and the list goes on. It is both artwork and feature film, mainstream and unconventional, documentary and fiction. It is a freakish bastard child, a nodal point where many fields of interest combine and collide.
 
The game, one like any other, took place in Madrid on April 23rd, 2005. Real Madrid, Zidane’s team, played against Villarreal. Seventeen movie cameras, all focusing on Zidane, were installed around the stadium. Two of these cameras, made by Panavision, were high definition and equipped with an unprecedented zoom that could multiply the image by 300 times its size. Parreno and Gordon borrowed these cameras from the United States army for their first commercial usage. The camera crew was composed of the best camera operators available at that time in Europe and the United States including Scorcese’s and Almodovar’s cameramen. The cameras focus intensely on Zidane throughout the ninety minutes of the game. The detail is incredible. We see the sweat ooze from his pores, the veins pop in his forehead, the spittle on his lips. As for the sound, the Scottish alternative rock group Mogwai wrote ambient music which fades in and out. When the soundtrack isn’t playing we hear noises that even fans in the front row couldn’t have possibly heard: Zidane’s breath, the soft crunching of his cleats on the grass, the hollow tip taps of his foot dribbling the ball. Sometimes subtitles express Zidane’s thoughts or words, statements about the magic of the game, the yells of the audience, the feeling right before scoring. Only during half time does the film move away from its subject when disparate television clips present the world news of the day. The film ends when Zidane gets into a brawl and is sent off the field with a red card, an eerie prophecy of his subsequent expulsion in the World Cup later that year.
 
The attempt to overcome the story or narration is an attempt to present a true portrait of Zidane. Gordon and Parreno have repeatedly stated that they arrived the day of the shooting with absolutely no script. The film is structured rather by the rules of a professional soccer game and how a particular game progressed on a particular day. Nevertheless, in focusing almost exclusively on Zidane, the film isolates him from the match as a whole. That the scoreboard never appears, leaving no record of who is winning or of time remaining, makes the rules of the game a negligible factor in structuring the action of the film.
 
A story is always told from someone’s perspective, usually the author’s. Even if the author’s voice remains absent, one of the characters or a synthesis of character’s viewpoints throughout the progression of the story ultimately reflect it. Parreno and Gordon, nonetheless, did their best to transcend the limits of point of view. This attempt runs contrary to a tradition in film, and art in general, where a work reflects the artistic vision of an ‘auteur’.
 
The film presents a multiplicity of points of view. First, it is a collaboration between two artists as well as the cinematographer, Darius Khondji. Gordon and Parreno have stated that during and after the filming they fought over every artistic decision. The film is not the realization of a unified vision but rather the product of conversation. Secondly, seventeen cameras were used, each one operated by a different cameraman and each one situated in a different place. The cameramen, having received no instructions, were free to interpret the game in their own way.
 
The point of view becomes even more complicated when one camera shows what another camera sees. Other shots look over the shoulder of someone watching a monitor which show what a cameraman sees through his lense while he films the game. It is not clear if it is Parreno or Gordon or Khondji, but whomever it is watches passively while the event unfolds. We can see the film being filmed. The film watches itself. Other times, we see the game through the Spanish television station, Tele Madrid’s, coverage. Sometimes their coverage appears directly and other times we see it through a shot of it on a television. We also occasionally see through Zidane’s point of view. We see, for example, a shot of Zidane lifting his head preceding a shot of what he sees.
Zidane
 
Zidane also avoids the domination of one voice. Sometimes we hear the voice of the Spanish television commentator. He recounts what is happening in the game like a narrator. Mogwai’s soundtrack plays as well. The band wrote the soundtrack after having seen the film, and as a result the music acts almost as a commentary. Right before Zidane gets the red card, for example, the ominous tone of the music warns us of a dangerous turn. Sometimes the yells of the crowd react to an exciting pass.  
 
Not only are the points of view and voices multiplied to the extreme, but rather than converging to form a seamless viewpoint or vision of the event, they pull apart. Oftentimes we hear the crowd cheer for a pass that we did not see and vice versa. The Spanish commentator’s account of the game is never translated, thereby becoming more alienating than elucidating. Zidane’s voice is disincarnated as subtitles. These words show thoughts that Zidane obviously expressed before or after the game so that the time and the place of his narration do not occur at the same time as those of the images. Each of these layers of mediation remain on their own plane, even irritate each other without resolution. This is quite a beautiful sight: the real, the image and the commentary appear simultaneously, without hierarchy.
 
The perspectives become even more fractured when the film attempts to show us what exists beyond the limits of the game and the film during half time. Gordon and Parreno stated that they did not want to follow Zidane into the lockeroom during this time, so the cameramen turned off their cameras. The story already reduced to a minimum, once the character disappears, all that remains is what exists beyond the narrative, beyond the artistic point of view, beyond the frames of the cameras. Once we are freed from the space of the stadium in Madrid and the clock time of the game, a pure field of simultaneity is unleashed. Unanchored voices and points of views fly at us frenetically from around the world as we see heaps of arbitrary information acting spontaneously in the universe. We see that this same day, ‘in Brazil, on Ipanema beach, a puppeteer brings Bob Marley to life again’ and that ‘the Asia-Africa summit conference ends in Jakarta’ (subtitles). We receive digital images from cyberspace and even celestial images from outer space. The voice of an anonymous subject in the world expresses itself through subtitles: ‘my sun had a fever today,’ and ‘I had something to do today...’. This unhinged mass of diverse information offers a fleeting glimpse of the world before it is organized by human perception.
 
This schizophrenic fragmentation of voices and points of view both in and outside of half time create what Pier Paolo Pasolini called a free indirect discourse. Parreno has repeatedly cited Pasolini’s influence on him, and in particlar on Zidane. Pasolini wrote that the only way to record the real is to infinitely multiply the subjective points of view. As a result, a multiplicity of autonomous perspectives come together in a given event without harmonizing to form a consensus. From this polyphonic dialogue, a free indirect discourse surges up which is outside of any individual subjectivity. For without a stable point of view, the film allows for a point of view which is multiple, non-human, prismatic.  
 
A free indirect discourse offers one way beyond the control of the artists’ intentionality and thus a ‘master narrative’, but the basic premise of the film already does that. The game was a real event which would have happened with or without the making of the film. And Gordon and Parreno decided to make this film about Zidane no matter what happened in the game. The film would have documented whatever happened that day, even if Zidane had been injured and taken off the field within the first five minutes of the game. As Douglas Gordon said: ‘It was a real time thing. As soon as you abandon yourself to real time, what can you do?’. The artists were thus powerless.  
 
As for our hero, well, he couldn’t be bothered to worry about the film. He was busy playing the game. Gordon and Parreno state that the unmatched intensity of Zidane’s playing style made him their sole choice for this project. Unlike, for instance David Beckham, who is a showman, Zidane shows no signs that he knows that he is being watched. His concentration is total. He is completely involved in the match. Gordon states ‘He is simply being at the event ... He’s playing for the game, not the film.’ In this way, a soccer player in the middle of playing was the perfect choice for a true portrait. Zidane reveals himself in his being: in presenting himself he is no different from himself. Without a script, Zidane does not impose from without a predetermined form upon its subject but rather sets up a situation, its own game, that lets Zidane just be. Eurydice vanished forever when Orpheus turned to see her.
 
But who is Zidane, anyway? If this is about focusing intensely on a character, we should learn something about him, right? Watching the film, however, gives very little insight into Zidane’s inner life. We learn that he spits and sweats profusely but his impassive visage gives few clues to what he is thinking or feeling. Gordon admits, "As much as we've spent all this time with him and looked at his face for years, he still remains unknowable. He was, after all, the great ‘enigma’’. In the film, Zidane remains inscrutable like the sphinx. An absence is present. Unlike conventional documentaries, the film does not attempt to make transparent the identity of the subject. No biographical facts are given or even hinted at. Little can be gleaned of his relation to his team mates or opponents. Sometimes he seems completely alone on the field. So not only does the film attempt to get beyond the intentions of the authors, but it also gets beyond the intentions of the main character. It seems that by removing a protagonist from his personal story, Gordon and Parreno are looking for the revelation of a deeper truth.  
 
If while playing in the game, Zidane is a self-presentation, Zidane is a representation of Zidane. In the film Zidane becomes an image. His image-like quality permeates the film. The task of following only Zidane proves to be a difficult task due to the speed of the game. He often comes in and out of focus. In spite of the super high definition of the cameras, Zidane’s physical presence seems fragile and almost ethereal. He often appears as an almost ghostly presence frequently blurred, fragmented, and pixelated. Titles written rather than spoken of his failure of memory emphasize his disembodiment. And it is dubious whether Zidane even really said these words. His thoughts seem more like the words of a robot. As Gordon states, he only seems to exist ‘between the opening kick and the final whistle of the game.’
 
An older piece by Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, No Ghost Just a Shell, seems pertinent here. For this work, Parreno and Huyghe bought the rights to a Manga character who didn’t have a story and named her Annlee. Under copyleft she was free to be used for various artistic projects. Many different artists filled Annlee, this empty sign, with their own stories in their films, posters and sculptures. She became a way for many people to share an image. ‘I was bought, but strangely enough I do not belong to anybody,’ Annlee declares in Parreno’s film Anywhere out of the world. ‘I belong to whom is ever able to fill me with anykind of imaginary material. Anywhere out of the world. I am an imaginary character. I am no ghost, just a shell’.
 
With his personal narrative reduced to a minimum, Zidane, like Annlee, is no ghost, just a shell. Since his thoughts appear as subtitles, the spectator of the film has to read them with his inner voice. Zidane thus becomes a part of him. Zidane even talks about his vision of himself being mediated. ‘When I was playing I had a running commentary in my head,’ the subtitles write. ‘It wasn’t really my own voice. It was the voice of Pierre Cangioni, a television anchor from the 1970s.’ He is a sign, a puppet, a pure enchanting image. Zidane’s impenetrability offers a screen for Parreno and Gordon, for the many cameramen, for Zidane himself, for his many fans, for all of us, to project our desires, a mirror for us to see ourselves.  
 
In the 21st century, we all must participate in the image in some way or another. Sounds scary. Does this mean that there is no more reality?[2] Is there no way out of the society of the spectacle, of the simulacrum, or whatever other post-modern reference you want to use? Certainly the image today is branded and commodified. Zidane’s image, like Che’s or Mickey Mouse’s, is used as capitalist tool to incite desire in the consumer. He is fetishized. But what does that mean? A fetish is an object that stands in for something desired but missing. Within the fetishist there is a conflict between the actual perception of reality and the desire for what is not there. Many people consider fetishism, if not a perversion, at least a mistaking the imaginary for the real. But the ambiguity of the fetish could also offer a path beyond the confines of the given. In denial, the fetishist accepts in the phantomatic object, in this case the image, both what is there and what is not. He lets something unreal become real. ‘Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all’ Zidane’s subtitles state. The fetishizing process allows the object to triumph over the ego. So it provides, outside of a subjectivist point of view, a glimpse of the inaccessible external world, like a dream. Gordon and Parreno stated that they wanted to create the feeling that you have when you’re riding in a car and you look out the window and begin to daydream. Oftentimes the most beautiful narratives are not given for us to see but exist in our heads. Perhaps this is why the film is so unreal, even mystical at times. The heightened colors and sounds, the attention to detail, a pink aqueous vapor hovers beneath the hot stadium lights, Zidane’s handsome haunting face, give the film a poetic, magical quality.     
 
In any kind of game, a player is required to perform a task which has been laid out for him. Play precedes the player. The player must subordinate his intentions and subjective consciousness to the rules of the game. The game then presents itself through the player’s self-presentation. We could push this idea further and say that just as the player of a football match is required to activate a game, so is the spectator of an artwork. If we look at it one way, art is a static object, a closed image, etc. But on the other hand, an artwork always requires someone to whom it represents itself. More than that: the work of art poses certain questions, proposes or evokes a feeling or an idea for the spectator to interpret and respond with his own questions or proposals. A dialogue occurs. In this way the artwork reveals its own truth in the happening of its representation.[3] And of course the conversation between the artwork and the spectator changes according to the circumstances of its representation. This rings especially true for Zidane. The film most certainly raised different questions for a contemporary art critic viewing the film in a museum and a sports lover watching it at Gaumont. A Mogwai fan and a cinephile surely engaged in different exchanges with the movie.  
 
The point here is that the football game and the artwork present themselves anew each time they are experienced. As a field of self-presentation, play is a model for the work of art and its revelation of truth. Each time we participate in a soccer game or the art game, the possibility of a different outcome renews itself. The rules of a soccer game stay the same but the outcome changes each time it is played. So maybe ‘Is there no reality?’ was a stupid question. Through the game, reality is not pre-established by any subject but rather produces itself. Like day dreams, soccer and art exist in a strange place between the actual and fantasy. Zidane was filmed in real time and documents real events, but it is edited and presented after the fact. In both the art and the soccer experience, everyday life is put on hold. They are a fractal dimension, an interstice right smack dab in the middle of our lived experience. They are grounded in life but separate from it as well, an inchoate point, a juncture where actual and potential meet. Here, it is impossible to determine what is past and what is present, what is fact and what is fiction.  
 
At the end of the film our hero shoots himself in the foot by getting a red card. The match, steeped in possible outcomes must take one course and pass into the actual. Game over. Well, only in real life. Unlike that day like any other, April 23rd, 2005, the film can be replayed again and again. Zidane has now retired from the field but through this portrait we can experience him at work, we can share his image whenever and in whatever way, whether we frequent contemporary art galleries or Gaumont Pathé. By presenting Zidane as an image rather than in his base materiality, the film is able to disclose a realm of memories and fantasies inscribed in our minds like a dream. This portrait of a hero without a story opens up a field of potentiality that can transform prosaic reality. For not just Zidane, but all of us are a composite of relationships, situations, stories and people. Showing us that identity is not fixed but malleable, the film invites us to create our own narratives for Zidane as well as for ourselves in the free play of the art game.
 
 
This essay was written especially for KUNST.EE and commissioned by Alo Paistik.
 
[1] All quotes unless otherwise indicated are from the special features interview and Making of a Documentary, the documentary about the documentary, that come with the DVD.
[2] No More Reality is the name of a series of early works by Parreno.
[3] For more on art as a game see Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method.
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