This weekâ€™s Last Words feature comes from Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordanâ€™s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. This will be the last Last Words post for a while (possibly permanently if I retire the feature and move on to something else), as I will be taking a tiny, tiny hiatus from blogging for PANK, until the beginning of April. I will try my best to occasionally post in the time until then, but if Iâ€™m unable to, I look forward to being back here in April.
I still remember watching the 2006 World Cup final. I was in a French cafÃ© in San Francisco, even though I was supposed to be on a plane to Portland to meet other, actual writers for the first time in my life—but I kind of figured, fuck it. Zidane is as important to me, and more beloved, as any writer or piece of writing, anyway.
The difference in enthusiasm and support, pre-headbutt and post-headbutt was pretty stark. People have restored Zidane back to his godly status, but in that moment, there was a palpable shift, a palpable turn, in the crowd. I felt sick. As Zidane left the pitch, no one applauded. Well, except for my partner and me. My partner, who cried out, â€œMerci, Zizou!â€ Dirty looks. Later I had to hear people talk about professionalism and sportsmanship and disappointment and shame a lot. I don’t really give a damn about any of those things.
Rupture is very close to rapture, I think.
Co-director Parreno said that the idea behind the film that was â€œto make a feature film which follows the main protagonist of the story, without telling the story.â€ We follow Zinedine Zidane, and only Zinedine Zidane, throughout the course of an ordinary Real Madrid game, in real-time. No interviews, no talking heads, no biographical information. Zidane, as he lives, in the game.
(If one were to make a film of the Iliad in this manner. Gazing only at Achilles.)
Occasionally, fragments from previous Zidane interviews, things he has said, his own recollections, appear as subtitles on the screen. Sometimes they appear multiple times. Sometimes you hear the Spanish commentary on the game; sometimes it recedes into silence, or is covered over by the sounds of that sometimes spare, sometimes unabashedly emotional Mogwai score. (Parreno said he wanted music that sounded like it could have been emanating from Zidane’s face.) During half-time, the only time we leave the space of the game, we see news reports from that day, events around the world that occurred during the time of this game. The time of a portrait. The time of the world contained in the time of a portrait. A car bomb kills nine people in Iraq. In the photographs of the aftermath: the figure of a young man, seen from the back, wearing a Zidane jersey.
As its title indicates, this is a film which is also a portrait, and beyond that, an exploration of portraiture as a genre, but watching it I am reminded how near portraiture is to love. To adoration. This is one of the most obsessive films Iâ€™ve ever seen—not simply voyeuristic, but tender, lingering, fetishizing. Not even pornographic, beyond pornographic; scopophilic. Zidaneâ€™s face, Zidaneâ€™s body, Zidaneâ€™s voice, Zidaneâ€™s words. Zidane pulling his socks up. Zidaneâ€™s surprisingly fragile-looking legs. The funny way he walk-limps, sort of dragging his toes on the ground, as if to keep in constant contact with it. His look of disdain at a diving player on the opposing team.
Parreno described the film as the enactment of that childhood fantasy you have, when youâ€™re watching your hero playing football on the television, and you sit as close as possible, trying to see as much of him as you can, and even when the game ends, you are unsatisfied, you long to be able to see more of him. That feeling is there: the devotion and concentration of children in love.
It must also be telling that the filmmakers claim to have not expressly looked to other football films for reference (I donâ€™t know if I believe that; the film is said to have echoes of the film about George Best, Football as Never Before, but I havenâ€™t seen it, but I think Parreno said he doesnâ€™t like it at all), but, instead to Andy Warholâ€™s screen shots and his film The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women and to Velasquez paintings in the Prado in Madrid.
Accustomed as we are to observing women in such a manner; men, less. Laura Mulvey has written famously about men as bearers of the look and woman as spectacle in cinema, but in this film, Zidane is the spectacle. Zidaneâ€™s body as icon, fetish and commodity. Also: who is permitted to look at men; when and how are we permitted to look at men. That sport is a homoerotic space is nothing new, but the presence of the game, its rules, its adventures—all of these things structure and sanction our looking, efforts (sometimes still unsuccessful) at interrupting erotic trajectory. In Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, the game is erased. Weâ€™re looking at one figure, one body, all of it, all the time. Youâ€™re not watching a game anymore. As if the film were reaffirming sports spectatorship as the erotic, queer space it always has been. As if the film itself were in love with Zidane; or, more specifically, as if the film were performing a love (our love) for Zidane.
That said, I think that as much as the film zooms in on Zidaneâ€™s body as a body, its exploration also seems to rely on Zidaneâ€™s quality of seeming alien, sui generis, at a remove, singular. His celebrity reputation is built as much on the evasive and enigmatic cult of personality he commands, as it is on his terrifying skill and good looks. Zidane and his haughty reticence, his sort of knightly-gentle-macho-ascetic-monk aura that then explodes into sudden acts of violence or fury. I think people become obsessed with Zidane because he makes a point of remaining unknowable, inscrutable, from another time. Absence of features on his cars or homes, prostitutes coming forth with their tabloid stories, tax loophole scandals. And while he has as many advertising contracts and deals as any other footballer, he never possesses the smiley commercial approachability of a Beckham, for example.
(Beckhamâ€™s smiley-creepy thing is now gaining an aura of tragedy, really, with all the injuries and the Galaxy and the loss of the England bid and the desperation to remain available for the English teamâ€¦ I donâ€™t know. Iâ€™m not huge on David Beckham. I think I like Victoria, though. The most recent footballer to obtain my affection is Mesut Ã–zil. But I don’t follow the Liga games, so I donâ€™t know, is he doing well? I tend to have a thing for attacking midfielders. That sounds like a sexual euphemism.)
In the making-of documentary for the film, the directors also mentioned that for most players, what remains of their careers are the highlights, the great goals, the great passes and maneuvers, all of which can amount to a few minutes, out of years of career. But what would happen to Zidane’s gestures, to his attitude on the pitch, to his way of being? That would be lost. And that is what is being preserved, observed, adored, here.
Zidane is unapologetically taciturn and aloof; he makes no attempt to be any more relatable or accessible than necessary. Even when he speaks openly, there is a distance in his speech, sentences that trail off, or that end with a phrase that he says so often it feels like a catchphrase, â€œet voilÃ .â€ Or, “et voilÃ , quoi.” VoilÃ . There it is. “I canâ€™t speak it; just see it.” But you canâ€™t see it. You have to imagine it. Here is a celebrity familiar with how to make mystery. Zidane as Garbo.
Parreno and Gordon said, again and again, that this film could only have been made with Zidane. No other footballer. Zidane alone.
The decisive brawl happens in the last ten minutes of the film, just before which we also see Zidane smile—only, I think, the second time he does so in the film; laughing at something Ronaldo has said. Then: the brawl. We see him run straight into it. We see him make gestures of threat, his hand stretched out, going for the opponent’s neck. We see Beckham tear him away, we see the rest of his teammates try to restrain him. We see him resist their restraint. We see him glare. We see him await judgment, looking a little regretful now. We see him receive the red card.
Zidane leaves the pitch. His teammates try to console him, try to rouse spectator applause in his favor. His stony expression. Everyone is standing, clapping. He barely acknowledges it. We canâ€™t see his face anymore. That old clichÃ©: the way every portraitâ€™s subject is its own impossibility. Every portrait a portrait of a gap, a lacuna. Aporetic.
The crowd is still applauding. On their feet. Zidane disappears. Static, the sound of the Spanish commentary again. Zidane is gone. The film is over. Even the letters of Zidaneâ€™s name in the ending credits, layered upon each other, form a kind of indecipherable pseudo-hieroglyphic symbol (also shown in the opening credits). Now we are blind; but weâ€™ve been blind the whole time.
From Maurice Blanchotâ€™s â€œThe Gaze of Orpheusâ€:
Why fascination? Seeing implies distance, the decision that causes separation, the power not to be in contact and to avoid the confusion of contact. Seeing means that this separation has nevertheless become an encounter. But what happens when what you see, even though from a distance, seems to touch you with a grasping contact, when the manner of seeing is a sort of touch, when seeing is a contact at a distance? What happens when what is seen imposes itself on your gaze, as though the gaze had been seized, touched, put in contact with appearance? Not an active contact, not the initiative and action that might still remain a true touch; rather, the gaze is drawn, absorbed into an immobile movement and a depth without depth. What is given to us by contact at a distance is the image, and fascination is passion for the image.
What fascinates us, takes away our power to give it a meaning, abandons its “perceptible” nature, abandons the world, withdraws to the near side of the world and attracts us there, no longer reveals itself to us and yet asserts itself in a presence alien to the present in time and to presence in space. The split, which had been the possibility of seeing, solidifies, right inside the gaze, into impossibility. In this way, in the very thing that makes it possible, the gaze finds the power that neutralizes it—that does not suspend it or arrest it, but on the contrary prevents it from ever finishing, cuts it off from all beginning, makes it into a neutral, wandering glimmer that is not extinguished, that does not illuminate: the circle of the gaze, closed on itself. Here we have an immediate expression of the inversion that is the essence of solitude. Fascination is the gaze of solitude, the gaze of what is incessant and interminable, in which blindness is still vision, vision that is no longer the possibility of seeing, but the impossibility of not seeing, impossibility that turns into seeing, that perseveres—always and always—in a vision that does not end: a dead gaze, a gaze that has become the ghost of an eternal vision.
It can be said that a person who is fascinated does not perceive any real object, any real form, because what he sees does not belong to the world of reality, but to the indeterminate realm of fascination. A realm that is so to speak absolute. Distance is not excluded from it, but it is excessive, being the unlimited depth that lies behind the image, a depth that is not alive, not tractable, absolutely present though not provided, where objects sink when they become separated from their meaning, when they subside into their image.
(Postscript: Another football film, much less erotic-heroic, I think, focuses on one of Zidaneâ€™s teammates, Vikash Dhorasoo. Called Substitute, the film consists of Dhorasooâ€™s own Super 8 footage, meant to capture his performances during the 2006 World Cup. Apparently the film was a failure, as his teammates refused to be filmed, and Dhorasoo receiving very little playtime—some say as a result of the project—making for something of a portrait of the precarity and isolation of a non-star player. The player who didnâ€™t headbutt anyone. But I havenâ€™t seen it.)
(Post-postscript: If you want to just see the end, you have to jump to the last ten minutes or so; for some reason I canâ€™t set the start time for an embedded Google video, as opposed to a YouTube video.)
Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordan: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait: