When you are immersed in the game, you dont really hear the crowd. You can almost decide for yourself what you want to hear. You are never alone. I can hear someone shift around in there chair. I can hear someone coughing. I can hear someone whisper in the ear of the person next to them. I can imagine that I can hear the ticking of a watch”
Let us forget the supposed media coup; let us also overlook the various lamentations of football fans, guardians of cinephilia and Godardian groupies who would have preferred that this film be different. Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon, the authors of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait – a recently launched UFO in the landscape of contemporary cinema – are barely older than their subject. All three of them witnessed in their childhoods the accelerated reification of images in the society of mass consumption and the advent of television as filter and dominant medium. Their artistic approaches have in common the refusal of all external critique of images and of society; to slip in order to modify the functioning, and to invent other practices – other experiences of time, space, and other narrative modes and relations between men and their objects. The film Zidane is not conceived in opposition to TV, rather with it – tout contre, as Guitry or Godard might say. Nor is it a question of deconstructing Zidane’s image, but of opening it up for a proliferation of narratives, transforming the object of consumption into a matter of collective daydreaming.
Entering into the image. One of the subtitles reveals the biographical origin of the fantasy: a child, lured by the sound of football on television, remains faceto- face with the screen, “as close as possible, as long as possible”. These words are supposed to transcribe Zidane’s thoughts, but their lack of signature invites them to be re-appropriated by Gordon and Parreno as well as by the spectator. The first shots adopt the image regime and the distance from the TV of our childhood: establishing shot, and low-angle shot. The softness of the voiceover and the image’s lack of sharpness give the image the quality of a memory struggling to re-surface. An abrupt cut introduces what will be the dominant regime: as close as possible to Zidane, at his height, plunged in the ambiance of the stadium. It is not the passage from TV to cinema but the entry into the depth of the image, the abandonment to daydreaming. But who is dreaming, from where and for how long? Put in another way, what is the origin of the images? It is triple: televisual, intersidereal, and pictorial.
The televisual space-time is that of the “live” recording: a man doing his job; he disputes a Spanish championship match with Real Madrid on April 23, 2005. A subtitle comments on his experience on the playing field: if he is playing, he is oblivious to the crowd, he can choose the sounds, hear someone move on her seat, for example. The documentary strength of the film: Zidane’s technique and his strange choreography, alternating between walking and running in short spurts. Impassive, Zidane seems himself lost in a solitary daydreaming, interrupted by brusque accelerations and rare exchanges with fellow players.
Two other origins thwart this real time – certain details give the intuition of an intersidereal spacetime.
In his work, Parreno often adopts the point of view of an extra-terrestrial in order to modify the perception of the world and to inject strangeness in the everyday. Here, regardless of the scale of the shot, the spectacle seems sometimes seen from faraway: establishing shots with blurry forms, as is taken from a satellite, or trembling close ups of Zidane, undoubtedly filmed by the camera lent by Nasa, equipped with a very powerful zoom. Amidst the daily news put together at half-time, several come under an intersidereal imaginary: the sale at auction of a vessel from Star Wars, compendium of plasma waves. Finally, a subtitle summons a time subsequent to the event, and affirms that lived experience is not that of real time: a game is remembered only by fragments.
Thus, disturbing the TV time, a distant, future origin affects the film with a past coefficient, colours the daydreaming with a memory tonality. Extra-terrestrials are fascinated by a man playing like no one else a game whose rules they do not know. Our descendants remember Zidane, but also Westerns, when the herds of cows or buffalo cross the first shot in a cloud of smoke, the noise of the hoofs whirling around the rider. With the unexpectedness of a daydream, Zidane sometimes looks like a cowboy, sometimes walking nonchalantly at a distance from his herd, sometimes guiding them with a wave of his hand and a smothered cry.
The third origin, pictorial, constitutes the spacetime of the portrait, of its production by the artists. On the morning of the shoot, Parreno and Gordon led their technical team to the Prado, to see the paintings of Velasquez and Goya. The film is also their daydream as portraitists, combining layers of images like brushstrokes in order to express their interpretation of the model. In the 21st Century, to draw a cinematographic portrait is to substitute the time of sitting for the time of recording. The inter-subjective relation of the model and the artist is suspended by the automatism of the camera, agent of a double letting go. Deprived of the time of sitting for the artist, the model no longer controls his gestures nor his expressions; he delivers to the mechanical eye the brute matter of his ordinary work: Zidane breathes, spits, swears, and sometimes runs for nothing. The portraitist is from then on submitted to a double constraint: he must assemble after the fact the fragments of an imperfect matter all in playing the game in the real time of a match. When Zidane speeds up, dribbles in front of the opposing team to offer Ronaldo the second goal, Gordon and Parreno are faced with a dilemma: to fulfil the portrait and to relinquish the visibility of the action, or to suspend it by replaying the action in reportage mode; they decide to do both, leaving in the “live” image in direct in order to allow for its replay on TV.
In this gap is expressed the antispectacular ethic of their approach: for once, the technological debauchery does not aim at its own exhibition, it works in silence. More than the image, it is the sound that deals with the interplay of the three origins, modulates the daydreaming by the variation of the spatial and temporal distances. Gordon and Parreno had more on their minds than just revolutionising the filming of football. They invented the portrait of the 21st century as the daydreaming of the image.
Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all. Nothing at all. When I retire I will miss the green of the field, ‘le carre vert’.”
The words that follow are Parreno’s own on the genesis of the project, as well as its aesthetic and political implications – during a conversation with the writer in Paris, September 2006.
Cyril Neyrat: How did the film come about?
Philippe Parreno: Douglas and I didn’t know each other very well. I was familiar with his work, because we’re from the same generation and we’ve been in group shows together. In 1993, we prepared an exhibition together in Jerusalem, which took place just above a football stadium. We bought a ball and began to play. And we talked – the first idea was: what if we made a film in which we followed entirely a character immersed in a story? One might or might not understand the story, but it would be a kind of portrait. Then we said to each other that the length of a feature film was that of a soccer game, and that we could follow a player during an entire match. We thought of Zidane right away, as we both greatly enjoyed watching him play. And nothing but we never thought we’d be able to do it. I had never before tackled the question of portraiture in my work. We stuck to Zidane because apart from his elegance on the field, which is in itself enthralling, he has a very enigmatic side, a kind of inertia in which one never knows what he is thinking.
Finally, we got to meet him – in the beginning he refused because he thought that it would be a documentary on him, which he didn’t want. When we explained the idea to him, that he would do nothing else but play during ninety minutes, he became interested. We showed him images of Garrincha [Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s film, Garrincha, Alegria do Povo (1963), on Brazil’s first and best known football artist], and explained to him that even with a career like his, which happens only once every ten years, there remains ultimately only very poor images. What remains of the presence of a great player on the field? Then, we realised that we had personal anecdotes in common. When I was little, I often got close to the TV screen in order to look at what my heroes were doing. And there is always a moment when you wonder what the player is doing when he is not in the centre of the action, when he doesn’t have the ball. That’s where the dream part begins. And Zidane used to do the same thing; he asked himself the same question. Finally, we agreed on what makes him unique; his capacity to concentrate, to enter into the match. What makes the difference, according to him, is not the technical gift but the capacity to concentrate. Today, however, he admits thinking of other things; there isn’t only soccer in his life, but still it remains true. Those were the three decisive elements.
CN: The film’s form comes then from him, from what he told of his experience?
PP: Yes. And although we were asking nothing more of him than his permission to film, we met him more than ten times. For a precise reason: the sound, which we knew early on would be essential. Just as the portrait indicates a triangular relation between the spectator, artist and the model, so the sound puts the spectator in a situation of empathy. You are no longer in front of the image but inside the event. The sound must give the feeling of being there. Thus we asked him many questions about his audio perception. And then the sound couldn’t be recorded live, because there were too many noises in the stadium. We had to re-invent it. We showed him images and asked him what were the corresponding sounds. He told us: here, I am inside, there I am not inside. We asked: but what does it mean to be inside, what do you mean by that, etc.
CN: The variation of distance, primarily constructed by the sound, embraces thus the perception of playing?
PP: Yes. The rushes are a very vivid substance. In the beginning the cameramen were afraid to be to close to him, because they were afraid of losing him. Although we had insisted on the fact that losing the character – or the point – wasn’t necessarily a problem… But it all worked out well because in the beginning he wasn’t really inside either. So we made the decision to be far away in the beginning, then to get closer to him as he enters the event. The more he is in the event, the more he is in the image. This construction of distance then took shape in the filming and in the editing. We spent nine months editing, because we couldn’t just apply a received idea, it had to be done with the images. We are both conceptual artists, used to resolving problems with simple solutions. And in this case, it was impossible; we had constantly to be asking ourselves what we were doing, so that the film could take shape.
CN: How did you set up the filming from a technical standpoint?
PP: We had 17 cameras – as many as television uses for a big match. The difference is that ours were all on one player, and they were all at the same level, just below eye-level, as if you were passing near him. We would have liked to have used even more cameras, but it wasn’t possible for lack of room in the stadium. I think we didn’t have enough. And then, it was also a question of the crew. We had to find 17 cameramen capable of doing the job. Darius Khondji, the director of photography, gathered all the people whom he could work with.
CN: Did you give the same instructions to all the cameramen?
PP: Yes. In the morning, we went to the Prado with a technical crew to see a very beautiful exhibition on Spanish portraiture, which was perfect. We were afraid that the cameramen would remain fixated on the idea of documenting the match. We wanted to show them that it didn’t matter if they lost the target, that in that case they should remain in their own visual field, and rather work on the exits and the entries from their area of focus in the event they lost the central character, etc. This grammar was progressively put into place during the game. We spoke to them and they would ask: “Closer like that?” And we reassured them that it wasn’t important if they lost Zidane, that they should keep shooting and use their other eye to find him again. Darius was a big help to us with that.
CN: Did watching the rushes put your mind at rest?
PP: Not in the least, we knew immediately that it was going to be complicated. We focused on the filming while the challenge was there. And only after, we began to wonder how to do it, if it was really feasible to maintain our idea for an hour and a half, if it wasn’t going to run out of steam along the way. As a result, instead of four months, we spent nine months in editing.
CN: To make the film coherent, did you think about an overall movement of the film?
PP: We did an initial edit that lasted two and a half hours, and then we began to progressively reduce it to real time of the match. After four months we had an initial timeline on paper, with a series of rhythms. Then we decided to shift completely to the logic of the portrait at the end of twenty minutes, after the first reel. We were not working by scenes but by layers; it was impossible to break the film up into segments. Then we began to imagine the music. During this whole process, we really thought about painting and about portraiture. Previously I had conceived of a project, Ann Lee; it was the portrait of an imaginary person. We realized that many artists of our generation had considered the issue of biography: Dominique Gonzales Forster, Liam Gillick, et al. Thus, this film allowed me to make a film in synch with issues in contemporary art. The question was as follows: starting from the crisis in narrative, which has existed now for some time, would it be possible to imagine a biography without a narrative? Zidane was a perfect model for this quest. He completely refuses to be a standard bearer; he resists being narrated. I read a superb article by Douglas Coupland, Polaroids from the Dead, where he explains that Marilyn Monroe never stopped engaging in the narrative process. Whereas today, stars like Bjork are allergic to that. After the Lars von Trier film, she decided to make no more movies for this reason. Why do stars today have such difficulty to find themselves in the stories of others? This issue made us consider our own relation, as artists, to representation. This became a real divide, whereas in the beginning we were very much influenced by filmic narratives. Why are we more interested in meta-stories than in stories?
CN: The title can be understood in two ways. What is a portrait in the technical and aesthetic conditions of today? And also: what would be a portrait of the 21st century?
PP: Exactly. In the last analysis, the film becomes a portrait of the century. We are moreover thinking of doing a trilogy. At the end of the film, it is the audience that looks at itself. Because when you look so attentively at a fantasy, an icon, you end up by seeing yourself. What makes you, at a given moment, accept to become part of the image?
CN: What would be particular about a portrait of the 21st century?
PP: It is inscribed in a problematic relationship with time. For instance, do we remember which year September 11 happened? At times, it all becomes very vague. You realise that without a time code, it is very complicated to edit your own story. The representation is propped up by the viewing time. And it is this time that gives the acceptance of the other. How long can I look at someone without wanting to know more? The more you do it, the more you realise that the eyes are a mirror, and the question then becomes: for how long can I accept myself?
CN: The film’s temporality is very complex. There is the real time of the game, and many systems that overturn this first temporality.
PP: That is where we take off from the documentary to go into fiction, into daydreaming. In the beginning we said to each other that the film should give the feeling that one can have in a train or a car, when you look out the window and begin to daydream. It’s a landscape in time. It is also like reading: after a while the book becomes a support on which to project one’s stories. Douglas and I read a lot. The principle of reading can be important in looking at a work of art. The idea is to read rather than to contemplate, to be active in front of the work. The best stories are those that one has in the head, not those we are given to see. This film is an aid for this kind of daydreaming. You take off in your dream, you fall out of it in order to come back to reality, you are taken back again by a sign that connects you again to your own daydreams etc.
CN: The film becomes a fiction in the sense where it becomes a surface of projection for the phantoms of films, westerns for example.
PP: Yes, like the films of Sergio Leone… or films about wildlife, like those of Frédéric Rossif. What interests me in art is to open and to explore the interstitial space between two formats: between painting and photography, between sculpture and the readymade, between the document and fiction. And this film is really in such a space, between documentary and fiction.
CN: The floating perception is both that of Zidane in the event and that of a spectator before a moving landscape.
PP: Yes, empathy is created between Zidane and the spectator. The more he is in the event, the more we are with him, and the more we are with ourselves. It was clear in the editing that when Zidane is no longer there, the spectator too exits the film.
CN: Occasionally, Zidane himself gives the impression of being a spectator.
PP: These are the moments when he is key to the event, when everything revolves around him – he is not on the outside, on the contrary. At the end of the match, he told us he would have liked to do more that day. But no, it was good just like that; he didn’t need to do anymore because he magnetises the event.
CN: There are many shots of Zidane’s feet. Did you ask the cameramen to do this?
PP: Not especially. He has this tic of striking the grass with the point of his feet. He told us that it was his thing, a signature gesture. And this tic helped us to draw the portrait of a secretive man, given to little talk. It tells as much about his psychology as about his gait. We filmed very few shots where he has the ball; we preferred to film when he was walking or doing his tic. And then his gestures when he calls, which are all ways of situating his body in space, on the field.
CN: What is the status of television? It seems to constitute the origin of the film.
PP: This is what we shared, for the biographical reasons already mentioned, with Zidane: the idea of beginning with the television and going beyond that. It is not so much a question of entering into the image as of having the missing images. We didn’t want to do a critique of television. On the contrary, we spent twenty years watching football on television: it is an enormous aid to the imaginary. On the other hand, images are lacking there. It was also a question of using film for the one thing it does well: to embody, in contrast to television that disembodies. Zidane himself said it: the only moments where I really see myself is in the close up in the interview, and it is not me. When he saw the film, he said: that’s me. The cinema is a machine that embodies. As a result, we spoke a lot about the colour of human flesh, skin; we were looking for the colour that best incarnated it. How film can give a feeling of heightened presence, in using such and such a colour. These are really painterly questions that I had never tackled before.
CN: How did you convey this relation with painting?
PP: First of all with the large format. With Darius, we even considered shooting in Scope. But it would have been too heavy, too complicated during the shoot. The landscape format moves apart from television, from 4/3. In the close ups, there is space to the right and to the left of the face, a space left to the spectator for dreaming. This space creates the time of looking to explore the image. The relation to time is different in the landscape format.
CN: Why did you insert a TV replay at the moment of Zidane’s decisive pass?
PP: We were torn between the idea of seeing the action again – twenty years of consuming TV images – and the refusal to leave real time. But as we had shifted between real time and the TV regime before, we told each other we could do it: pass to the replay without leaving real time, which continues underneath, and take up the event again later. On the time line at any time during the editing, we had the choice between several cameras and the absolute time of the broadcast on television. Now at that moment, in the TV images, we had a replay. We chose to use it. All the large compositions in high angle shots are TV images whose rights we purchased. TV became an 18th camera.
CN: Why did you begin with the TV image?
PP: To be more literal. The project came about like that: coming close, entering into the television, so we began like that. At first we thought to begin with the images of half-time, of what was going on in the world. Having as a point of departure a very large shot of the globe and to return little by little to the match. Ultimately, we gave up on this idea because it would have taken too long to enter the film.
CN: I felt in the film something like an extraterrestrial point of view, very far away. This thematic is present in the interlude of the half-time and I learn you used a Nasa camera during the shoot.
PP: We spent a lot of time looking on blogs, looking for information on the events that happened during the match. This gave us a sort of global geography. We were looking for news on the same level as the film: just enough to set dreams in motion. But there are also heavier images, like this character from Najaf in Iraq who draws near the place of an explosion wearing a tshirt with Zidane on his back. We did a kind of temporal swiping. Because the idea is indeed that of a portrait in time, we first had to introduce the question of the portrait, then that of time, of absolute time. We did it at half-time. Since Zidane told us that today there wasn’t just soccer in his life, it is interesting to paint his psychological portrait with fragments of the world in real time. And all things considered, I like this moment, because it helps me leave – just like at half-time when people leave, go to drink a beer. Then return to the match, to the film.
CN: The point of view of the alien: like a big telescope fixed on the earth by extra-terrestrials who look at this guy without understanding.
PP: It’s funny because I had a project with [Jason Larnier,] the fellow who invented virtual reality. He had written a very beautiful text, Alien Seasons, where he asked himself what aliens would see if they came to visit. For an alien, it would be enough to see the two eyes and the hole of the mouth that seems to allow communication. The film could have been the opposite of Ridley Scott’s Alien: an alien who films the world and how he sees us. It comes back to these same stories of portraiture and narrative, of the character crossing the narrative. We used the NASA camera for its incredibly powerful zoom. In the film, it provides the closest images, the grainiest.
CN: Velasquez, Goya… Do you have more recent references in portraiture? For instance Warhol.
PP: Yes, but above all a film by Warhol: The 13 Most Beautiful Girls, where he asked top models to look at the camera without blinking, and they ended up crying. By dint of looking at an image, one caves in, exhausts oneself. But we are inspired above all by literature. Finally, we saw Hellmuth Costard’s film on George Best [Football as Never Before, (1971)]. He put two or three cameras on George Best during a football match. But Costard had a critical viewpoint, with the idea of exhausting the gaze given to a star. The result is very boring. For us, it was a question of going farther than the fine idea that others had before us; to experience the portrait in time and to explore the abstract narratives that one projects.
CN: The film is edited very rapidly; the shots are very short.
PP: The film is tighter at the end than at the beginning. But in any event, we made do with what we had. We would have liked shots that lasted a long time but we had very few. It is very difficult to hold a shot in this context, with people shouting and with everything in motion. So the editing responds to the constraint of the rushes. In the beginning, we edited very long shots, but these shots dry up quickly; one can feel when the cameraman is no longer there. The idea then was to reconstitute the sequence shot from fragments, and the film is in the last analysis a single sequence shot.
CN: This method also comes from painting, from the portrait: in painting you don’t edit shots, you work by strokes and by sections.
PP: Yes. And since we turn constantly around him, we don’t respect the usual rules for direction, like that of the 180° axis. Occasionally, we could choose to cross or not to cross the axis, but at other times we didn’t have a choice; we had to cross it because we didn’t have images to continue in the same axis. There again, this film is not pure fiction, we had to make do with the real.
CN: It is in that that the film is a portrait realized in the 21st century: with images in movement, a pre-recorded matter. Another way of saying that you work between fiction and documentary.
PP: And between Douglas and me, Douglas worked a lot with found footage, whereas I usually make my own images.
CN: Why did you choose the group Mogwaï for the music?
PP: Because their music is not illustrative; it’s layers in constant development. Their music is capable of sustaining the duration. And it allows for other sounds too. In what they proposed to us, they had mixed in with their music noises from the match. It is music that is both very abstract and narrative. They composed over the image, 90 minutes. We took out a lot, but we respected the placement, the entrances of the music. It arrives in the film after twenty minutes, at the moment when Zidane really enters the match. In making it enter there, we rendered it subjective; we really identified it with the character.
CN: How did you record the sounds?
PP: We recorded training sessions of Real Madrid in order to have the voices calling out to each other and we did takes on several games in order to work in a precise and detailed manner on different crowd sounds—we didn’t want a compact crowd, but one very individualised. And we worked a lot with the soundeffects engineer for the rest: the footwork, the ball. The sound mixing was also a crucial step; we spent several weeks on it. We chose Tom Johnson because of his great work on big budget American films: Strange Days, the films of James Gray, Million Dollar Baby etc. He creates strange, subjective sound effects. He mixed the film like a composition, like a musical conductor. In the beginning, we were full of ideas, for specialising the sound, to make it turn from all sides. But finally we had to give it up for a more centred, concentrated sound, because many theatres are not equipped and the result of such a work would not have been good.
CN: In France, some people want to make Zidane an icon for multiculturalism. Did you think about this aspect of the character?
PP: Yes, but in the sense where he remains simply enigmatic; he resists being told. Zidane is not a standard bearer. But at the same time, he remains a Kabyle, so yes, we were conscious that people were going to see an ‘Arab’, an ‘immigrant’, for an hour and a half. It’s a fact. But it was not for us a reason to take off in that direction and to inscribe a narrative that he himself refuses. When he saw the red card, in the film/match, he accepted it without discussion. Some people in France say: “It’s the return of the banlieue”. No, it’s just life. That’s why he likes football, because it’s life with its ups and downs, its accidents. He was disappointed for us, but he didn’t regret his gesture. As for me, although I spent ten months making this movie, I still do not know him, he remains mysterious. But the object of the film wasn’t to respond to the questions that Zidane poses and that he asks himself but to present the mystery. And in fact, this red card is a gift for the film: a final drama.
CN: What then could be the political dimension of the film?
PP: Politically, the bias is the same as for other aspects of the portrait: that it be told without being said. From this point of view, there is a very simple stake: I can’t look at my mother for ninety minutes, but an immigrant, yes. But what is also interesting politically is Zidane’s resistance to representation, to being assigned to such and such a cause or category. This idea of any man, non-ascribable, is very modern. You find it in philosophers like Giorgio Agamben. It is the force of Zidane the model, who is in this sense very contemporary of our post-dialectic age. The paradox today is that we are capable of decoding more and more complex images, but less and less capable of talking about them. Are we still capable of seeing without falling back on an easy post-Marxism that simplifies, classes and categorises everything? Whereas it is a question of confronting the image head-on, of confronting complexity without minimising it. The film implies a manner of understanding by the flux and not by stopping. If you stop the flux, then inevitably you see more clearly – that’s what Freud said during his medical studies: you have to stop the bleeding in order to be able to operate. We decided to not stop the flux and ask ourselves questions in the flux. Likewise, we have been criticised for not working the off-screen space. It’s stupid: you can’t think that the only manner of looking at the world is analytically stuck in the 1930s. And in fact the film only speaks about that: the off-screen space in peoples’ minds.
CN:What was Zidane’s reaction to the film?
PP: He saw the film in the final stage of editing, not completely finished. At the end, he said to me: “It’s me. I am tough like that.” He recognised his eyes, his gestures, everything. I didn’t want him to tell me: “It’s a beautiful film,” I wanted simply that something of him be transmitted. He said something very beautiful: “What I see in the film is my brother talking to my mother. Because my brother has not been exhibited, and when I see him speaking to my mother, I say to myself: ‘He is authentic.’ And me, I have the impression of having lost that, and when I see myself in the film, I see myself as I am.”
I very much like this idea that recognising himself in his portrait is also to recognise someone else, a double, someone close. The only part he didn’t like is when he laughs, because then he is no longer in the game. After his decisive pass, for example, he shows no emotion. He also adored the sound; he loved that it is too loud: he found that that showed well the feelings, conscious or unconscious, of the field.
Cyril Neyrat is a film critic at Cahiers du Cinema, and the editor of Vertigo magazine. He has contributed to the collection Le Cinema et L’Essai. He also selects and programs at the Marseilles International Film Festival. This interview is translated by Sally Shafto.
This piece orginally appeared in Chimurenga 10: Futbol, Politricks & Ostentatious Cripples (December 2006) in which we scope the stadia, markets, ngandas and banlieues to spotlight narratives of love, hate and the wide and deep spectrum of emotions and affiliations that the game of football generates.