The mark of Zidane

Douglas Gordon speaks about Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

Z marks the spot, whether that spot is the television, cinema screen, museum installation, or the memories of millions of people who've borne even cursory witness to the career of Zinedine Zidane, especially its instantly mythic — as opposed to merely controversial — final athletic moments. All of the above spots are touched on by the masterful Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a multiformat work at the crest of a current fascination with athletic documentary. Shadowed by Verónica Chen's undersung swimmer drama Agua (2006), Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's project reveals sports' potential as a source for pure cinematic dynamism. Moreover, it taps into a famous athlete's tremendous resonance as a subject of artistic portraiture.

The presence of the word Portrait in Zidane's English title is an important one. The film's codirectors (the latter of whose recent installation The Boy from Mars is a favorite of filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul) shot only one match, from Real Madrid's 2005 season. But they are portraying both Zidane and this century. If ever there was a solitary — if team-playing — figure up to the task of embodying or at least evoking a universe, Gordon and Parreno have chosen him. To use the vintage words of ABC's Wide World of Sports, Zidane's actions have transcended the thrill of victory and agony of defeat.

Zidane makes its public SF debut at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, thanks to film curator Joel Shepard. (One can always dream of a future screening at the Metreon, where its Kevin Shields– and Bay Area–influenced sound design, Mogwai score, and panoramic scope would be ideally realized.) Because I've only seen it on DVD, in lieu of writing a review, I recently spoke with Gordon. The Turner Prize–winning native of Glasgow, Scotland, began our talk while looking at a Neil Young record in a bookstore, before grabbing a cup of tea, and maintained his casual good humor whatever the topic.

GUARDIAN What led you to choose Zidane as the film's subject? Were you a fan?

DOUGLAS GORDON Yeah. The first time we met Zidane, it was difficult to try and behave like adults. I can speak French OK, but I tried to introduce myself and sounded like a girl meeting John Lennon in 1960. I fell to pieces.

SFBG The George Best movie Football as Never Before (1971; directed by Hellmuth Costard) has been cited in relation to Zidane. But it comes from a different era, and Best is a different kind of subject or icon, and you're using different equipment.

DG We developed our idea in blissful ignorance of Costard's movie. But when we were having trouble figuring out how to deal with portraying the halftime period, someone mentioned [it] to us. At that point it wasn't available on DVD, so Philippe actually flew from Paris to Berlin to go to the National Film Archive in Germany.

Later, we watched it together and looked into Costard's practice. Obviously, he didn't want to engage with the industry of cinema or the vocabulary of cinema — it was almost antithetical to his practice — whereas we wanted to play with the idea of a star and how a star is mediated, to see if we could get under the skin rather than stay on the surface.

SFBG Can you tell me about your tactics in using 17 cameras within one game to capture Zidane? To me, television hasn't figured out how to present soccer. Some sports translate intimately to television, but soccer is often held at a distance.

DG Most televisual representations of football are based on a kind of theatrical convention of only shooting from one side — you have an entrance-left-exit-right type of motion. By breaking that down, you actually break up the architecture of the stadium.

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