The Rules of the Game

14 mins read

Q: How can you tell when the stage is level?
A: The drummer drools out of both sides of his mouth.


The basis of this joke is supposedly that drummers are dumb brutes. The joke on the tellers, though, is that a slack jaw, a blank face, can actually indicate the opposite of vacancy. In the case of the truly talented, it’s the extraordinary attention required to coordinate four- limbed musicality that causes any body parts not essential to the task to go slack; all the mind’s awareness is where it’s needed and there’s none left over for elsewhere. At heart, this means that a face does not necessarily reveal anything about its owner’s interior; that sometimes the most intense concentration, of artistry or athleticism, can look like nothing at all.

As evidence of that Kuleshovian workhorse that audience identification with an onscreen character depends not just on the close-up but on its context as a reaction shot — that is, its alternation with a point of view (POV) — here is Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. For this real-time rendering of a single football (soccer) match (Villarreal vs. Real Madrid, April 23, 2005), art stars Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon requisitioned a 17-camera crew, helmed by master lensman Darius Khondji, to train every camera resolutely on Real Madrid and French international star Zinédine Zidane.

As the opening titles promise: “From the first kick of the ball / until the final whistle… face to face / as close as you can / for as long as it lasts / for as long as it takes.” For the length of the match we watch Zidane navigate the game: sometimes full-figure, sometimes only his feet, legs or hands, but the overall impression is of his dispassionate face. Occasionally he encounters action — suddenly, startlingly, since we rarely are given vantage on what’s coming his way; we only see his eyes, looking out past us. The action is usually over as quickly as it came, Zidane dispatching the ball back into the unseen fray and continuing to move, to watch, to wait. An injured player is an out-of-focus foreground blur past from which we pan, eyes on our man; Beckham is a faceless teammate whom Zidane pats on the back and sends out of frame. Given the almost entire lack of POV shots, we could say that every shot is of a man reacting to something, but none of them is a reaction shot.

There are a few exceptions. From Zidane’s perspective, we see upward-looking shots of the lights, the crowd, the scoreboard… Occasionally a wider shot of Zidane will also take in the subject of his gaze, effectively functioning as an over-the-shoulder view. There are also clips of the TV broadcast, which do give a brief context of the match. These concessions notwithstanding, the cumulative effect is that you see Zidane but don’t know where he is. Each individual shot is a portrait not of a man in space but of a figure flattened by telephoto lens against an abstract background. Whatever all this communicates to us, it’s not Zidane’s experience.

But of course to say such a thing necessitates the perhaps archaic (so 20th-century) assumption that cinema is psychological. The film may well have other things on its mind; its self-presentation as a “21st century portrait” implies that it’s making certain assumptions, and certain statements, about what this century is. Among them: it’s a time of multiple-angle coverage, rapid continuity montage and prolonged-duration surveillance, none of which adds up to intimacy (if they ever did).

Whether or not the long lenses’ flattening effect and the lack of POVs were the directors’ artistic preference, they were also dictated by the simple fact that you can’t put any cameras down in the playing field. All your shooting has to be done from the sidelines, and in this respect the cinematic technology of Zidane differs very little from that of its TV-broadcast cousin. The film is as much a portrait of the technology employed in its own making, and therefore of sports television, as it is of Zidane.

Countering the risk of reducing the film to a single conceit, Parreno and Gordon introduce a number of fractures, repeatedly and purposefully breaking the rules they seem to have set out for the film. Zidane “speaks” of his experience in the form of voiceless subtitles; they cut at one point to a camera lost in the maze of the stadium; a portion of the match is foleyed to evoke a children’s street game; and the halftime interval is a news-of-the-day montage (which is itself fractured by some disruptions of the subtitles’ narrative ownership).

Zidane’s first-person subtitle ruminations do go a long way towards humanizing him, but, interestingly, his psychology takes shape as part documentary subject, part movie character. His first passage begins with that old saw of narrative character development, “When I was a child…,” and his “voice” is given such sparse screen time that we can’t help but notice how constructed is this person we’re getting to know, piece by tiny piece. Not for nothing does the title sequence introduce Zidane as a barely-human series of component pixels.

Later, as Zidane comments on the subject of the crowd’s presence, the moment at which his subtitle appears is an arresting combination of image and text: the football icon is seen in wide shot, off to the side of the frame, surrounded by rushing bodies. Below him, against the green pitch, can be read his subtitle, “You are never alone,” while behind him, a colourful, electronically animated backdrop is proclaiming “Kellogg’s.” Once you’ve spotted it, you can’t stop noticing that the spectacle of advertising permeates the film, not because of any product-placement agreements made by the filmmakers but because advertising literally bounds the space and adorns the chest of every person on the field, including the subject of this portrait. It’s a reminder that some people pay to be in these pictures, some have no choice, and some choose to sign a contract that means they no longer have any choice, but every person, word and picture onscreen is there as a result of transactions of permission.

It comes to a head at the end of the halftime sequence, with an arresting photo of an Iraq car-bombing’s aftermath. Civilians cluster in a chaotic street scene, one of them with his back to us. He is wearing a “Zidane” jersey. When we return to the match, Zidane’s jersey has a new connotation: he too is a brand, another image amidst a sea of them, to be duplicated and sent forth on waves of pictures and money. The relation of this man’s interior experience to the exterior journeys of his face and name is virtually nil.

Like the joke about the actor playing the gravedigger in Hamlet who says, “It’s a play about this gravedigger who meets a prince,” Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is a reminder that, though we are all protagonists in our own lives, only occasionally are we the main characters on the larger stage. This is true even of princes like Zidane, acquired by Real Madrid for the unprecedented sum of $66 million — and the key word is “acquired.” The stage, the playing field, is not level.

“Sometimes when you arrive in the stadium, you feel that … the script has already been written,” says Zidane, and the film’s technical and aesthetic forcefulness, owing much to the droning, pulsing score by the band Mogwai, which plows forward with metronomic certainty, turn this from a personal feeling into an ode to predestination. It’s certainly a human and poignant expression of one man’s sense of lack of agency in the face of a larger system, but, co-opted by the film and its narrativity shell game, it comes across as an ecstatic resignation: he’s an image, the money moves the pictures, the technology is the century, what can one man do? The script is written.

If Zidane aims to be a portrait of one man’s solitude, it succeeds by avoiding showing his environs. If it says that sudden acts of violence — such as the one that ends this film, and the one that soon thereafter ended Zidane’s career—cannot be predicted or understood, even in retrospect, with unblinking surveillance and instant replay, it omits to show that understanding must sometimes come from knowledge of a system, not just one of its parts. If this film aims to be a portrait of the zeitgeist as one conducive to such isolation and eruptions, it is probably correct — but less for some accuracy of assessment than for its own contribution to that self- fulfilling prophesy.

The opening title contains a brilliant summation of the film’s approach. The letters of Zidane’s name appear one after the other and then all at once, on top of each other, becoming an object, viewed from all angles at once: no longer recognizable or legible, a compelling, aesthetic, cryptic rune. Subjectivity, identification and understanding are sticky concepts, and too freely bandied about, but sometimes you watch someone on screen and believe that the thoughts and feelings being evoked in you bear some similarity to those behind the onscreen face. There is one extended such moment in Zidane, and interestingly, it’s a direct result of the film’s basic conceit. We watch a tight profile closeup of him as he walks backward for what feels like minutes, his eyes focused on something straight ahead, his head bobbing up and down as the background whizzes forward.

It’s a virtuoso performance, and would not have been if shot in any way other than this virtuoso pan. We watch unbelieving that any person could walk backwards for so long without turning to check his path, unbelieving that for him it seems the most natural thing in the world. (Again, though, it seems — a seeming based on that mask of a face, a folly like the assumption that the drummer’s drool means he’s dumb.) Simultaneously, we share his experience while being in awe of it. This is a moment of appreciation, of watching a celebrity. But there is a connection here between us and him, a very real one. We can’t see where he’s going, but neither can he, and we are sharing that experience with him.

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