On the Clock
Eric Hynes on Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

There’s only one character in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s stealthily profound, fragmented experiment in motion picture profiling. To the exclusion of other participants, Gordon and Parreno tracked since-retired French-Algerian soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane via 17 simultaneously running cameras during a Villarreal v. Real Madrid football match on April 23, 2005—and then reconstructed the footage into a real time document. Forget about David Beckham, or Ronaldo or Ramos or Robinho or the flight of the ball tracked by everyone in the stands and at home watching TV—we just follow Zidane.

Such collective focus doggedly shifts ours from the drama of the contest to the anti-drama of a man largely standing around—in close-up, wide shot, whole bodied and in part—waiting for his chance to strike. The waiting, the cleat-cleaning dithering, the watching—these, and not the drive to score or defend, are the true substance of the film. Without the larger context, or any sense of what’s happening outside of the frame, we don’t even know if something dramatic might be about to happen. Thus when something significant does transpire before our eyes it passes too quickly for us to make adequate sense of it. In such moments we’re like witnesses to a car crash, the details of which we instantly forget, our attentions unprepared for an “event” to arise so suddenly from banality. Zidane waits, then engages, and then returns to waiting. Action is either anticipated or recalled, scarcely attended. Though the glowering footballer proves to be an endlessly fascinating and photogenic muse, the true subject of the film—and of all works of cinema, whether or not they choose to address it—is time. Time elapsed, time remembered, time dictatorial and precious, time watched at 24 frames a second.

Soccer matches are 90 minutes long, as are, traditionally on the main, movies. Gordon and Parreno (two visual artists known for their contemplations of duration, including the former’s 24-Hour Psycho and the latter’s Centre Pompidou retro titled “Journey Through Time”) never overtly equate the two, but they don’t have to; the fact that the film achieves a standard theatrical length merely by documenting every minute of a match—plus a few crucial moments of halftime—is assertion enough. It’s a fulfillment of the gambit laid down, though never truly exploited, by Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, the prologue of which acknowledged the dependable structure granted, in football and film alike, by a 90-minute countdown, as well as the freedom of variance afforded therein. In Zidane, such modulation comes twofold—from the unscripted nature of the live soccer match we’re attending, if not fully watching, and from the virtually infinite cinematic options gifted by those 17 simultaneously attentive cameras. Rather than exploring multiple narratives within the same contest (which Run Lola Run played around with by supposing different fates for its heroine) here the faceted approach serves to abstract upon a theme—as embodied by Zidane. In a sense, the directors, along with editor Hervé Schneid, treat Zidane like a figure in a cubist painting by Picasso or Braque—central to our gaze but aggressively fragmented through montage, minutely revealed yet still a remote, telephotographed mystery. And as the frame of the painting demarcates the limits of what seems like a limitlessly faceted composition, so do those 90 minutes serve as the border for Gordon and Parreno’s endlessly fractured portrait.

The idea of Zidane as a worthy yet also arbitrary focus of the film, much like the Parisian gentleman who was both immortalized and obscured by Braque’s Man With a Violin, is forwarded from the very start of the film. Subtitles are infrequently employed in the mostly dialogue-free Zidane, which only enhances the force of the text chosen—particularly in a poetic preamble that is later repeated verbatim at halftime, when its effect is overwhelmingly amplified:

From the first kick of the ball
Until the final whistle
Who could have imagined that in the future
An ordinary day like this
Might be forgotten or remembered
As anything more or less significant
Than a walk in the park.

Eight years later, the day indeed is both more and less significant than a walk in the park. More significant because a magnificent work of art was created on that day, and because we have a singularly scrupulous document of what transpired during a regular season soccer match in a stadium in Spain’s capitol on that day. Yet the day is less significant for its transference into metaphor. It no longer has the integrity of a single, self-defined day, instead becoming mere material for an abstraction, an idea, a representation of time instead of an integral unit of it. If the filmmakers could have chosen any other day, then why should we care about April 23, 2005? The same goes for Zidane as subject—he’s both venerated and abstracted into universality. Zidane’s power arises from that fact that significance and insignificance have the same net effect on the viewer: either way, from the high to the low, moment to “moment,” life is rapidly passing before our eyes.

For this reason, the then nearly 33 year-old Zidane—august for a footballer—is an ideal embodiment of this truth. With his chiseled, gorgeous and fierce dark features, his sensuous brow and balding crown, his broad shoulders and irrelevantly scrawny arms, he’s a matinee idol on the wane. In football, offensive assassins like Zidane are often left dawdling while action happens downfield, waiting for a chance to animate, sprint, and, finally, strike; their task is dependent on bursts of, rather than sustained speed. Here Zidane spends most of the film’s running time conserving his energy for when it counts, like an old cowboy content to let the young bucks make all the noise while silently biding his time. Indeed, when Zidane finally sees an opening late in the second half, he absolutely explodes along the left sideline, delivering a lining pass so brilliant that it makes the ensuing goal into a secondary event. With his sculpted head often filling the frame, the taciturn, ever-surveying Zidane is like Clint Eastwood in a Leone film, a recessive hero whose majesty is only enhanced by his lion-in-wait inaction, his squinting, crows-foot-eyed superiority. Yet the plot is closer to one of Eastwood’s self-directed later films, with the protagonist nearing his end while freighting ours alongside. In a sequence too mercurial for fiction, Zidane, while chatting with a teammate, erupts into his first full-bore smile of the film, mere seconds before intervening in a tepid pushing and shoving match between opposing players with such rabid intensity that he’s red-carded out of the match. Before the clock can signal an end, the hero falls on his own sword.

For all of its film-theory-in-action fragmentation, the film does manage to imbue Zidane with a point of view and an inner life. Via intermittent first-person subtitles, we get fragments of the man’s childhood recollections, ruminations about heightened senses on the field of play, and conjectures about what he’ll miss when his playing days are over. Additionally, Gordon and Parreno very occasionally, if crucially, employ the techniques of cinematic identification. Though largely our scrutinized object, Zidane is granted a subjective perspective via reverse and wide shots: when his gaze lifts off of the field, we cut to the blinding lights atop the stadium; when he talks of the collective and individual sounds of the spectators, we get a wide shot of the crowd over his shoulder; and when he stalks off of the pitch after getting the boot, his upward glance leads to a tilt up and out of the stadium to the dark infinity of the sky. And most effectively, in what is but the most notable aspect of Selim Azzazi’s masterful sound design, subtitles about Zidane’s childhood aspirations give rise to the non-diegetic sound of exultant street kids in the mix—the documentary record infiltrated by sonic fictional memory, the modernist, mediated present blended with a collectively sentimentalized past. Another crucial element of subjectivity comes in the form of a mood rock soundtrack by Mogwai, gathering and dispersing throughout the film. The music intimately envelopes the public spectacle of what’s on screen with a sense of inner space, as if Zidane and we were dribbling around Villarreal defenders while sharing the same set of headphones.

Again via subtitles, our hero provides what might be considered the thesis of Zidane—a passage that hints at the conceptual germination of the film:

The game, the event is not necessarily experienced in 'real time.'
My memories of games and events are fragmented.
Sometimes when you arrive in the stadium
You feel that everything
Has already been decided.
The script has already been written.

Such is also the case most every time we enter a movie theater. The script has already been written, the outcome already decided. That Gordon and Parreno’s film is predicated on an event that actually had no script—they didn’t know that Zidane would be red-carded, and certainly would have preferred that he’d scored—is made irrelevant by its passage into film, into a finished, ready-to-project construction that remains fixed henceforth. But as it is for Zidane, the heroic conduit, our life experiences rarely register in real time. Rather they come to us in fragments, in scenes and shots and gestures, lines of dialogue and sound cues like the blast of sound that accompanies Zidane’s early edit smash from TV to film image. The film both reconstructs time, via the game clock, and deconstructs it, via aggressive spacial and sonic displacement, and the ways in which it emulates how our minds transcend any present moment with recollections of and propositions for others. The film and the game conclude in 90 minutes, at which time we begin to make of it whatever we will.