The first thing I notice is the sound. There's something otherworldly about it, disorienting. I grope for something familiar to hold onto, but can't find it. Just breath, and crowd, and feet on grass, and the pinging of the ball -- that surprising high pitch resonance that cuts through the blood-brain wash of crowd noise.
First the sound, then the video. It's claustrophobic, really. The tight angles, the lack of context, the eyes constantly scanning the pitch, the spitting, the staring, the intensity, the sudden burst of movement. It's hypnotic, it's beautiful, it's grotesque.
Then suddenly we're above, in the familiar saturated colors and high angle relief of a broadcast television camera, giving context and breath to the proceedings. The Mogwai soundtrack begins again, and now the words on the screen tell a story about a man at war with himself, at war with the game, of doubts, of concentration, of annihilation.
It's perfection. It's that wondrous moment in a documentary when the lie of manipulation tells a truth much more important than the one actually in front of you. When certainty is bent not by context, but by amplification. When the sounds of the Santiago Bernabéu are replaced by the sounds of a school yard, and Zinedine Zidane -- warrior poet in Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno's brilliant documentary "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait" -- looks up at the lights in wonder, one can't help but be transported directly into his past, directly into the life of a complete stranger.
My father likes to tell me about what it was like when the New York Giants left the Polo Grounds for good in 1958 to play baseball in San Francisco. The boys in the neighborhood were heartbroken, the city mourned, but one man had a brilliant idea. Les Keiter decided to stick with his team, and continue to broadcast Giants baseball in New York City.
Keiter monitored telegraph reports bringing the essential play-by-play into the WINS studio and filled in the rest, offering descriptive flourishes based on his best guess as to what was actually happening.
“You might not know what kind of pitch struck a man out, but you remember what a certain pitcher’s key weapon is,” Keiter recalled. “You can’t see the condition of a field after a rain delay, but you know from your preparation what conditions the stadium is usually in when wet.”
...Sometimes wearing Bermuda shorts and eating popcorn at the mic, Keiter banged his drum-stick against his wooden block to simulate a batter connecting. His engineer activated tapes labeled “Excited Crowd” or “Regular Crowd” and, on occasion, the sound of booing.
Once in a while, when the ticker account stopped transmitting or became garbled, Keiter filled in the time by inventing a pitcher-catcher conference on the mound or a batter fouling off pitch after pitch.
"Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait" is the visual representation of Les Keiter's radio broadcasts. Using 17 cameras, Gordon & Parreno followed Zinedine Zidane in real time over the course of a single game in 2005. A game played in front of 73,000 fans. A game that preceded the announcement that he'd be retiring by exactly a year and one day. A game that had no other significance other than it was the one Gordon & Parreno chose.
On its face, 17 cameras capturing one man, would appear to be simply the reporting of events. The film is, however, full of Keiter's artifice. There's a narration imposed by the intermittent (and spectacular) score and an emotional space dictated by text on screen -- the words of Zidane himself providing a window into his complex character.
And then there's the very fact that we're denied any context to what we watch. The first goal scored is only evident in the rising sound of the crowd, and the audio (most likely overdubbed) of a ball going into the net. Zidane spits. He walks. His head down. What we glean from this is only ours to know. It is the absence of imposed narrative that, in fact, creates the narrative for us.
The documentary is mesmerizing and transcendent. It's also a revelation: the coldness of a television broadcast with the mindless chatter has melted away, leaving only the man, his thoughts, and time. So much time. So much time spent wandering the pitch, in search of a purpose, in search of a way to impact what takes place around him.
The metaphor is not a hard one to draw.
I don't know what compelled me to watch this film on this particular weekend. It is, after all, almost 8 years old and I'm not particularly a fan of Zidane's.
Perhaps it was the lack of quality matchups in the Premier League. An early season meeting between Man Utd and Chelsea resulted in a 0-0 draw that was not one of those 0-0 draws that are exciting despite the final score line. Even Tottenham's 1-0 win over Swansea felt lackluster, eclipsed by the "Narrative."
The weekend was dulled by something inexplicable to me. How could a weekend in which newly promoted Cardiff defeated the Goliath of Manchester City be so uninteresting? Arsenal won, Liverpool won, the world spun on its axis, nothing was moved, nothing was changed.
For the past two months I have listened to close to 200 hours of podcast and radio, read thousands of pages of reporting and punditry, and spent altogether way too much time thinking about the capital-N Narrative of the transfer window -- where this player is going, how unhappy that player is, whether this squad is clicking or that one isn't.
The camera finds Jose Mourinho during the Chelsea game, his scowling face studying the play as it unfolds. "Jose has to be happy with how his squad is playing," the commentator announces. A few minutes later a failed attack leads him to say, "Jose's strategy of deploying no recognized striker is surely haunting him now, perhaps he was sending a message to Wayne Rooney that there is room for him here on this Chelsea side."
I spent the weekend longing for the transfer window to close, for a respite from the soap opera and heartbreak of "which overpriced hairdo is unhappy at what club?" and a return to the soap opera and heartbreak of actual soccer.
I think that's why I loved the Zidane documentary so much. There was no storyline, there was no imposed narrative, nothing but me and this one man. What was artifice was obviously artifice. No one believed that Les Keiter sat in the stands in San Francisco in 1959. No New York radio station was going to fly a man around the United States to cover a team that had abandoned its home town. But people listened and let their hearts and minds be carried off into the reverie of a game played 3,000 miles away.
This coming weekend Tottenham Hotspur will face off against bitter rivals Arsenal in the North London Derby. It's my favorite sporting event of the year. This year, it has been scheduled for one day before the Transfer Window closes.
Maybe I'll watch the game with the sound off, escaping the mindless drone of commentators wondering what the teams will do in the next 24 hours. Maybe I'll put on Mogwai and let the game be the game. Maybe I won't even watch, instead dreaming of what the game is and could be.
UPDATE: The Man UTD played Cardiff not Coventry City.