Douglas Gordon speaks about Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
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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 Areainfluenced 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 Prizewinning 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. It's no longer rectangular; it's become circular in a way.
We wanted to make a portrait of a man: a working man who happens to be Zinedine Zidane, and the work happens to be football. It wasn't a particularly good day at the office for him he didn't score any goals, and he got red-carded. But we wanted what we did to be along the lines of a Robert Bresson picture; to capture the honesty of the everyday.
Kon Ichikawa's 1965 Tokyo Olympiad was a reference, and more for me than for Philippe the NFL. I wasted my youth watching 16mm, fantastically well-photographed NFL [footage]. Beautiful stuff, [shot by] cameramen who'd just come back from the war [in Vietnam]. Seagulls might flap by in front of them, and it wouldn't be edited out. There was something rough about the NFL stuff that we wanted. There's a couple of scenes in Zidane where the camera drifts up. That was deliberate, but it's a reference to the sort of accidental beauty that can happen in that type of footage.
SFBG One thing that the film brings across is that there are long periods of the game when Zidane is meditative and literally just standing. Then when he does move, it's incredibly sudden and really focused.
DG Some people have said that it's a little reminiscent of nature programming. He's definitely on the hunting side of things rather than the hunted.
It's an exercise in one man's solitude, though. There happen to be 80,000 people in the stadium, and he's part of a team of 11, but there are huge periods where he's completely alone.
Before shooting, we went to about 15 or 16 games and sat on the pitch. One of the big differences about the way we shot the film is that, apart from one camera, everything was on his level. There's only one aerial camera that we used very sparingly as a backup. We knew the way he would walk around and that he'd pace himself during the game, so when we talked to the [project's] producers, another reference we used was the corrida. You just don't know if he's the bull or the bullfighter.
If you were inside the head of Zinedine Zidane, you wouldn't see him at all, which would sort of defeat the purpose of the film. But we did want to give his point of view, and there are specific passages where you see him move his head as if he's a little disoriented. At points like those you don't really know if you're looking at the world through his eyes or looking at him.
SFBG What was his response to your portrait?
DG He's not a man of many words, but he got pretty animated [when he saw it].
We kept him informed. We knew it was going to be a fairly hardcore exercise and that it was better to tell him how we were approaching it step-by-step rather than just turn up after a year's worth of editing and hit him with [the finished work].
There were a couple of times [during the process] where he was really surprised and said, "That doesn't look like me, this is not how I look on TV, this is not how I look in a newspaper this is how my brother looks late at night talking to my mother."
We were nervous about how he felt he was portrayed because of the red card and the violence [in the match]. But he said, "I would do it again. The guy was an asshole."
SFBG That brings me to an inevitable question: what was it like to see things play out somewhat similarly in the final match of the 2006 World Cup?
DG I was in the stadium, and I couldn't believe it. Of course, you couldn't see what was going on because as usual there were another couple of Italians lying down feigning injury.
I knew we'd obviously stumbled upon something when, even before I'd seen the incident, people in the English press were quoting our film to make Zidane out to be a baddie.
SFBG Was that frustrating?
DG I think [Zidane]'s been sent out [of matches] more times than anyone else who wore the number 5 in the history of football. He's a real person; he's volatile.
It doesn't really matter what [Italian player Marco] Materazzi said to him; what matters is that he said something to one of the greatest footballers of this generation. There's five minutes left to go in [Zidane]'s career, and you want to taunt him about his wife?
SFBG How did you come to collaborate with Parreno?
DG Philippe and I have had mutual friends since the early '90s. We'd pop up in the same group exhibitions around 1990 and 1991. He made a film with Rirkrit Tiravanija and Carsten Höller in 1994 called Vicinato, and then I got involved along with Liam Gillick and Pierre Huyghe in [1996's] Vicinato 2. We'd spent a long time together talking about the script, and we shot it together down in Monaco. We watched a lot of football during that period as well.
But the genesis for the project really happened in Jerusalem, of all places. Philippe and I happened to be in a group exhibition ["Hide and Seek," curated by Ami Barak] there in 1996, and it just so happened the exhibition was under a football stadium, the Teddy Kollek Stadium. We finished our installations very early, and since Jerusalem isn't a place to go idly wandering, we bought a football and played Keepy Uppy for about a week. During that time we spoke of what we remembered about being kids playing football, watching football, and what we aspired to [achieve]. Then we spoke about cinema and the fact that people had been waiting for us both to make a movie.
We chose Zidane partly because and I think it's the same after our film he's an incredibly enigmatic character. He has this absolutely impenetrable facade. He's Zinedine Zidane.
Every time we met him, there was some other family member with him, and they're all bigger than him. When he's off the pitch, he's not as big as he seems when he's on the field. It's incredible what happens to his physiognomy and physicality when he's playing.
He was won over because during the first meeting we had with him, we said, "We want to work with you because, looking back over the past few generations, you represent something more than just another football star, something deeper than [Diego] Maradona or more complex than [David] Beckham." We had reedited some footage of [Manuel dos Santos] Garrincha, the old South American player, from a beautiful film [Garrincha, Joy of the People, directed by cinema novo pioneer Joaquim Pedro de Andrade] shot in the early '60s. I think the fact that we'd chosen Garrincha and not Pele or Maradona, for example, really struck a chord with [Zidane].
SFBG What you're saying goes back to the fact that Zidane both triggers and reframes issues of race and nationalism because he's so powerful as an athlete and individual.
DG Someone told me that in France during the recent election there was a lot of graffiti over campaign billboards for [Nicolas] Sarkozy and Ségolène Royale saying, "Zidane, Zidane." I wish someone had taken a fucking photograph for me, but I could probably restage it somewhere.
Sometimes I think it even comes down to the Z. There's something about it, like the mark of Zorro.
SFBG What have you thought about the art world response to Zidane?
DG We've spoken to a lot of people about sports, and about cinema. People have had a tendency to forget that Philippe and I used to say that we're trying to drag people from the white cube [of art spaces] to the black box and from the black box to the white cube.
We didn't lose sight of this, but it got lost along the way that Philippe and I knew [that] by choosing a subject or model like Zidane, we had the opportunity to really mix things up in terms of the audience. Kids could, in years to come, in turn take their kids to see it at the National Gallery in Scotland or the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. For kids who have the DVD, that can work the same way that it does when kids who maybe have a postcard of a painting can see the real thing they'll have an affiliation with it.
SFBG How does the installation version of Zidane differ from the cinematic presentation?
DG It's two projections the cinematic one, plus one of the cameras. It seems like a glib deconstruction, but when you see it, it's a different experience, much more demanding. It's almost a forensic detail of how we made [it]; if you troll around to 17 different museums all over the world, you'll see there are 17 different points of view.
Of course, when the one camera is the camera used in the cinematic version, you get this bifocal effect.
SFBG For you to have mentioned Bresson earlier while discussing Zidane is interesting, because the setting and subject matter are not what one would connect to Bresson. Usually when film directors mention him, their work is stylistically aping or imitating him.
DG The cinematography of [1966's Au Hasard] Balthazar was influential. But more so, there's a book Philippe sent to me [Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer, most recently published in English by Green Integer] that had an impact, in the way he talks about the difference between the model and the actor. This was really clear to us when we were trying to speak about Zidane. People would say he's an actor, and we'd say, "No, he's not, he's a model." He's not playing a role. He's doing his job, but with the awareness of being looked at, and that's very different from the way the actor performs. Some of what Bresson says in his notes almost could have been written specifically for the Zidane film. It's nice to quote Bresson, because he's so unfashionable.
SFBG And so great! Some of the best current movie directors also produce work for art spaces. You've given a lot of thought to the specificity of DVDs and cinemas and gallery or museum installations, so I wanted to ask you about those distinctions.
DG One of the things that Philippe and I were constantly asked [at Zidane's film premiere] was "Were you excited to be working in the cinema?" We weren't more excited than we would be [working] anywhere else. If there's anything that would identify a certain practice of our generation of artists, it is that most of us are working with the exhibition as a format, and the context informs the format while the format interferes with the context. A lot of people don't get that at all. I'm not trying to blow an intellectual trumpet here, but there is a certain amount of practice necessary to understand that. This is why when someone like David Lynch tries to move out of the cinema or TV screen into the gallery, it doesn't work sometimes. The filmmaker might not do enough with the gallery or the museum. *
ZIDANE: A 21ST CENTURY PORTRAIT
Thurs/17Sun/19, 7 p.m.; Sun/20, 2 and 7 p.m. (all screenings sold out except for Sun/20, 2 p.m.)
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room
701 Mission, SF