Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

The way in which we watch football, whether it be on a television screen or from the stands, privileges just one view of the game. To make sense of what occurs on the pitch one needs distance, clarity, a modality of viewing that is holistic. While this logic is unquestionable, it also creates a hierarchy of viewing where the more distance the viewer has to make sense of space (within reason), the better. 

The camera tight on him, Zidane receives the ball to feet and kills it dead with a laconic touch. An imperceptible glance tells him what he already knows; the run is being made, the pass is on. We have no real sense of space or direction- the only bearing is the path of Zidane’s glance, and the assumption that the closing defender is goal-side. A drop of the shoulder buys the Frenchman a crucial moment and the ball is sent off his outsole before the defender closes the space.

Beyond that we don’t know how the scene played out, the camera has remained on Zidane after the ball has been sent. A momentary grimace and a wary, weary backtrack tell us it didn’t end the way the Madrid playmaker wanted it to, but beyond that, the camera gives us nothing. This is the infuriating, enlightening experiment of Messrs Gordon and Parreno in the film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

It’s so common it is unconscious, but the way in which we watch football, whether it be on a television screen or from the stands, privileges just one view of the game. To make sense of what occurs on the pitch one needs distance, clarity, a modality of viewing that is holistic. While this logic is unquestionable, it also creates a hierarchy of viewing where the more distance the viewer has to make sense of space (within reason), the better. The advent of football matches being broadcast, and earlier, through the elevated stadium seats that privilege distance and dimensions of the pitch, the mode of spectatorship that has been inscribed to football fans is that of the “bird’s eye” view; the wide lens.

This dominant spectatorship means any other way of seeing the game has been granted only novelty status; think the frenetic, handheld Michael Bay-esque ‘shaky-cam’ footage that is a staple in highlights packages, intercut with more easily digestible footage. What the ‘shaky-cam’ offers the spectator is not insight into the overall dimensions of the game, but rather a sense of atmosphere, of ‘being there’. The truncated nature of this footage in comparison with a more holistic broadcast camera inscribes how we watch the game: its innovativeness may be acknowledged but primarily, its lack of usefulness in understanding the game as a whole, as a space, is evident.

Yet, far from being useful only to provide a novel counterpoint to the traditional, ‘broadcast’ view, using the camera as a study in close-up can introduce us to a very different understanding of the game. With the camera in tight focus on an individual – not just for an instant, but over an extended space of time – football is stripped of the clarity we take for granted. And stripped of its constituent parts – geometry, structure, the field – football is a study in temporality rather than spatiality. So much of our traditional understanding of football relies on the wide-angled, emotionally removed camera of the television studio, or of the elevated stadium seat. The space, distance, the easily articulated sense of structure, both tactically and physically, are eroded and instead we

This hierarchy of vision provides an obvious advantage- clarity. So what happens when the gaze is detached from the logical mode of viewing?

The first cinematic experiment to indulge in this question was Hellmuth Costard’s 1971 film Fussball Wie Noch Nie (Football as Never Before), which charted the inimitable George Best in a game against Coventry at Old Trafford. Using eight cameras, Costard’s film captures Best in extreme close-up; the framing and close focus of the cameras very rarely permits another player to even enter the view.

Costard’s experiment was built on by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno towards the tail-end of 2004. Capitalising on advanced filming technology, they employed 17 cameras, as well as television footage, to record the poetry of Zinedine Zidane in a game against Villareal at the Bernabeu. The footage is equal parts thrilling and frustrating; Zidane’s moments of genius are never followed to their conclusion, as the camera remains locked on him once he plays a perfectly weighed through-ball. And while the camera’s gaze isn’t as autocratic as it is in Costard’s earlier offering, it still feels like incomplete, unnerving viewing, like reading a novel with all the important chapters removed.

This, however, is precisely the point. A 21st Century Portrait doesn’t watch like a highlights package. Rather, it’s a prescient glimpse of the game as the individual footballer experiences it. What we witness is time passing the way it does for Zidane. The action is languid and scarce for much of the film, as it is on a football pitch for one man out of twenty-two, a study in solitude punctuated by moments of frantic action. More notable are the moments of interaction between his teammates and adversaries (an unexplained joke had with Roberto Carlos, a clash at a corner with an undisclosed defender).

Perhaps the real insight that comes from watching A 21st Century Portrait is less about the brilliance of an individual player, but rather a commentary on the nature of the game when witnessed in discrete segments. Sharp bursts of skill unfold on the periphery of the camera, whose gaze is never torn from Zidane, and the unfocused mass of bodies that constitute the crowd rise and fall in unison at imagined slights or opportunities, but throughout all this Zidane acts as a bizarre metronome; receive, pivot, carry, distribute. In the absence of real action, the spectator literally watches time pass. The lukewarm reaction to the video as played out on YouTube reveals just how inculcated we are in our understanding of the game as a narrative played out in easily configured space.

 Among this lack of context, and of action, the irony of the whole film is in the way the match culminates – in stark contrast to the previous 90-odd minutes, it closes in a blaze of emotion. Madrid are leading 2-1. Zidane suddenly bursts into action as his instincts take over. Sprinting with purpose, his destination is not the penalty area, but the touchline – he clatters into a Villarreal player as a confrontation boils over near the technical area and is summarily shown a red card. A match that had been as slow-burning Italian neo-realist film suddenly culminates in a tragedy of Greek proportions, an action that is beyond scripting. Head bowed, eyes furrowed, the great playmaker walks towards the camera. The premise of A 21st Century Portrait promised no such drama, but Zidane has managed to deliver, after a fashion.

Despite this closing act, A 21st Century Portrait is just as enduring during the moments which involve the ball. Zidane controls everything that enters in his sphere of influence. He’s in the twilight of his career, clearly exasperated by his body’s limitations. Unable to exert influence for long periods, he is given more to fleeting instances of skill. But when he does receive the ball, the long moments of inaction are made up for with details we could never see from the ‘birds-eye’. Geometry and space are intrinsic aspects of the game for the spectator, but without them another type of game has opened up entirely. The fraction of a second gained by taking the ball on the toe rather than the instep is accentuated because we come to realise that once it leaves Zidane’s boot it won’t be returning for an indeterminate time. The way he sells the defender a false lead better than any Ponzi salesman, before releasing sensibly, deftly, isn’t usual fodder of the YouTube highlights package but having been starved of real action, it takes on a new type of meaning – the kind of gratefulness and relief that a player must feel. This comes with its own weight too, as the paucity of time spent in possession makes it all the important to do something once the ball is received. In this context, the way Madrid’s number 5 cradles the ball in his instep takes on new meaning: the ball for Zidane is a blessing, and for the demanding, spoilt spectator used to being presented the game in as easily understood a form as possible, it is – for once – a blessing too.

 This post was originally published on In Bed With Maradona, under the title Zidane’s 21st Century Portrait – A Context


Almost Touching the Void

It starts to really bite around 2700 metres. Each step knocks the wind from my chest and the fog closes in before giving way to a chill drizzle, as if the air has thinned to such an extent that it can no longer bear the weight of the moisture.

Close to 3000 metres and the landscape changes, with dense jungle opening up to a steep clay riverbed hemmed in by windswept brush.

A burst of wind sweeps aside a bank of fog and through the stinging rain I chance a glimpse upwards. For the briefest of moments the clouds thin and the dimmest silhouette of Mount Kinabalu’s craggy summit looms high above. Our guide Jinus grins impishly over his shoulder and says, “this is where it begins to get difficult.”

Mountains, as symbol and metaphor, have always fired the imagination. From a distance they evoke a reverence. Three kilometres above sea level with oxygen becoming ever more scarce, however, awe gives way to a numbness, a kind of insular plodding – the cliché trundled out during every year’s HSC exams about the journey being more important than the destination has clearly never climbed a mountain.

At 4095 metres Kinabalu represents a daunting prospect for me – I didn’t quite make it to the top of Kosciusko on the Year 8 school excursion. Despite being almost double the height of Australia’s highest point (a fact which some haughty northern Europeans sharing our accommodation found particularly amusing), Kinabalu’s role as a regional drawcard is thanks in large part to its reputation as having an ‘easy’ ascent – unlike most mountains of comparative size, the climb only takes two days with a low degree of technical difficulty – which is to say, no oxygen or expensive rappelling or climbing gear is needed.

Mount Kinabalu itself is accessed by a narrow, road through the undulating foothills of Sabah, the Western of the two Malaysian states on the island (which also contains the miniscule Islamic state of Brunei and is bisected by Indonesian territory, the largely wild Kalimantan).

On an island with more than its fair share of natural wonders, Kinabalu stands out as a rare instance of a prospect that straddles the boundary between hugely challenging and actually attainable.

It is an incongruity that is strangely thematic of Borneo – despite its interior primary rainforest being one of the most unique and valuable ecosystems in the world, the more accessible areas of the island are studded with rather more venal human endeavours. And just as virgin rainforest gives way to palm-oil plantations and gluttonous mining and logging operations, so Kinabalu feels embarrassingly commercialised upon arrival. Sleek mini-vans of European and Chinese-based tour operators crowd the National Parks office at the base of the mountain.

Still, the apparent creature comforts of the various amenities at the base of Kinabalu gradually give way to the harsher realities of the  nine kilometre ascent – there is only so much taming that can be done.

Mount Kinabalu is a giant of the region; the tallest object between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea. This hugeness (and its near-perpetual cloudbank) masks its variances from afar – on approach, it’s easy to envisage it as a homogenous ecosystem, all jutting granite mass and clinging root. The climb reveals otherwise. The Timpohon Gate, the official beginning of the ascent at an altitude of 1,866 metres, opens with a gently sloping bush-track, and the initial climb is steady. The mountain unfurls gradually, coaxingly, through spectacular rainforest accentuated with pitcher plants and squirrels.

Most of the foot-traffic is generated by the ‘Sherpas’ – formidably muscled local Malay porters carrying supplies to and from Laban Rata – though occasionally a spent-looking Western hiker will be strapped to their backs, a warning of what was to come The last two kilometres before Laban Rata, undersold by Jinus as “difficult”, sees the path steepen sharply and the weather worsen, with moisture collapsing through the thinnest of air.

The plan – to wake at 2am and make the final 3km scramble to the summit for sunrise – begins to look unlikely shortly after arrival at Laban Rata at mid-afternoon. Aside from screaming calf muscles and a pounding headache (an almost unavoidable circumstance of the altitude), the rain that had been a frequent companion on the way up becomes an unerring drum on the tin roof, increasing constantly in magnitude. Glumly, Jinus informs us that the ascent won’t be possible if the rain gets any heavier – and heavier it becomes. A restless sleep and a torturously early rise is soundtracked by the roar of a steep granite path turned veritable waterfall, and a now unassailable summit.

The rain plagues us on the way down, too. Paths hewn from foot traffic begin to second as floodways and rocks that were helpful footholds on the way up become perilous ankle-traps. It takes around four hours to make the whole descent, a dogged, anaesthetised trudge through cloying mud. As I return through the Timpohon Gate, soaked to the bone and achingly sore, I feel cheated out of a commune with nature, left with a maddening lack of anecdotes and vistas, with the monotonousness of the descent and the bitter defeat, ultimately, of the climb.

Having not expected a sublime experience, I had at least budgeted for a sense of achievement upon reaching the summit. Instead, the reality of the mountain as a kind of purgatorial metaphor – a climb without a payoff, a descent without the comfort of reward – hits home.

As we drive away from the Timpohon Gate however, I am struck again by its sheer size – this time, accompanied by the sobering realisation that while a summit, as a metaphor and signifier, is a temptation hard to resist, I am pretty happy with my 3,373 metres – and a more than grudging respect of the permanence of Mount Kinabalu.

This article was originally posted in the University of Sydney weekly Honi Soit here