An Auld Alliance
Mogwai provide the music for Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s match-long portrait of footballer Zinédine Zidane. Despite being filmed during one particular game using 18 camera angles, Zidane is the antithesis of television sports coverage in many ways. There is no match commentary, the camera does not follow the ball, and there are no instant replays. Nor is it a highlight reel of greatest goals or best moments, though the sporting gods will know this player has adorned the modern game as few have done. By rolling the cameras for one game only, the filmmakers enter the one-chance world of their subject—a world we all live in to some extent, if only we knew it. Fittingly, the soundtrack is melancholy and intense; predictable, yet full of possibility. Mogwai’s music mirrors the reliable structure and ritual of every game: the pitch markings, rules, time limits; as well as the portent and possibility.
Zidane the man is fascinating to look at, with his sensitive face, close-shaved head, and deep-set eyes. These are crucial visual cues as the film tries to go into his mind, to see how he is “reading the game”. We observe how his mood changes, gauge his reactions, watch his scheming and notice how he loses himself in his work. Mogwai carefully adopt a thematic approach which does not intrude with excessive interpretation. Their trademark brooding swells of sound are always ambiguous, like the countless moments in the ebb and flow of games which either come to fruition or are thwarted. The music and imagery of Zidane should attract fans of both Mogwai and Association Football, a.k.a. soccer, but can offer pleasure to newcomers to either art form. I speak as someone who digs Mogwai, counts soccer as a religion, and adores Zidane. This recording is versatile enough to stand alone, but also enhances the movie experience.
As soccer fans, Mogwai appreciate that even a playing career as stellar as Zidane’s is unable to resist the slow decay of time, and sadness pervades parts of the record. The track “7:25” has undeniable pathos but is also loaded with defiance and celebration. The economy of the group on “Wake Up and Go Berserk” is used to devastating effect. The placement of piano is sublime; if they signed Max Richter to their team what could he add, or for that matter, subtract? “Half-time” has a similar bitter-sweet contrast provided by a gnawing swathe of guitar and dripping isolated piano notes. This record is a slow burner that will reveal itself with repeated listens.
Zidane is a genius. A drop of his shoulder sends an entire defense and half the fans in the stadium the wrong way. His dribbling skill in congested areas is mesmeric; his style, allied to balletic strength. His ability to score powerfully with either foot or his head, to caress the ball home when required, and to deceive flatfooted goalkeepers with free kicks is almost unparalleled. Zidane’s balance and range of control is contemptuous of physics. When passing the ball, accuracy and timing are mere bread and butter to a player of his creative stature. He interprets the disguised movements of his teammates and delivers appropriately, or his pass will actually signal to the recipient what they should do next. Zidane’s repertoire of personal skill has not been exceeded in the history of the sport. Performing such improvisations at the highest level of the game requires more than physical ability. Marcela Mora y Araujo recently wrote about players like Zidane and Juan Román Riquelme: “perhaps there is something about the way they both play which is reminiscent of a kid just following his instincts, and the bigness or importance of the event itself comes second, somehow, to that natural rapport they have with the ball.”
The soundtrack successfully demonstrates the paradoxical calm intensity that only certain players possess. Mogwai rely on the simplicity which has served them well in the past and on their instinct to choose the right note at the just the right time. Much of the music is reflective, quiet, and contains more gorgeous elements of lull than of skeleton-threatening storm. Mogwai appear to be strolling through parts of this record, but we know that they will strike. Their pacing is perfect: at times the action in the film seems to leave their music standing, as if they were a wrong-footed defender. Zidane says that he doesn’t really hear the crowd. As a child he always ran towards the TV when a certain game commentator was speaking, and in the gloriously long, buzzing, droning, hidden section of “Black Spider2” drone, we hear a faint voice talking.
The film captures fleeting moments of Zidane’s talent. It also reveals the importance of teamwork and how little time even the greatest players have possession of the ball. Zidane’s intensity comes over through his eyes. He may trick the opposition by apparently not paying attention, or walking, but he is poised, ready to seize the chance to strike. After a quiet start in earlier games, Zidane single-handedly destroyed Brazil in the last World Cup with a performance that many thought past him. He was untouchable, unplayable, dictating so much about the pace and style of that match.
At this level of soccer, a slight movement can unpick the locked defense or ruin a team move. When Zidane receives a ball played through the air at pace from seventy yards away and instantly controls it on his chest, thigh or any part of either foot, he also strives for the right angle for that first touch. A ball nudged at an angle that allows him to raise his eyes to see a through-ball, or to commit and beat a defender, can be the first chess move that makes a chance for a goal possible. A top-class game works like two opposing teams of dam builders trying to control the flow of water by closing off avenues, switching direction, move and counter move, fake and turn, retreat and counterattack. Fans understand this flow, and appreciate rare players who appear to have 360-degree vision and are aware of their options even before receiving the ball. Zidane invokes awe with his ability to constantly improvise and execute new ideas. Coaches can only plan to stop a familiar threat. They are defeated by players like Zidane who embody the evolution of the game.
I remember a photograph from of Zidane discreetly vomiting before scoring a last-minute match-winning penalty against England. In the film, sweat drips beautifully from his brow. In reality he exudes an honor and dignity that is hard come by. He must earn the right to play every time he steps on the field. His opponents will try to thwart him by any means. Before the 2006 World Cup, FIFA announced that referees were to clamp down on ‘simulation’, a.k.a. diving or pretending to be fouled to gain an advantage. It seems something similarly stupid is announced before every major tournament these days, as if players should expect the rules to be implemented differently than in every game they have played. Ironically, a very overt action would eventually surface from a man who has never needed deceit to prosper. The matador became the goring bull. Millions of people brayed that Zidane’s head-butt and subsequent ejection from the World Cup Final match cost his team and blemished his career. I am in the minority opposition who saw it as the act of a man who, when he broke the rules, did so in an un-cynical fashion. His opponent apparently insulted his family or his origins and for whatever reason, at that moment Zidane lashed out. If we love unpredictable skill, we must accept the occasional instinctive violent outburst as well. France forgave him, and officially thanked him for all the joy and pleasure he gave during his career. Either way, it is hard for me to believe Zidane’s chest-nod would have downed many people in Mogwai’s home town of Glasgow on a normal Friday night.
In a way, Zidane is football as never before. Or at least it would be, if it were not a reprise of 12th September 1970. That day, at Old Trafford, Manchester United beat Coventry City in a League game and filmmaker Hellmuth Costard used eight 16mm cameras to exclusively follow the legendary George Best for 90 minutes in a film called: Football As Never Before. There are many reasons why the ball is round….
[Most people in the USA won’t have seen Zidane but as usual, Sam Wade at Premiere Video in Dallas was way ahead of the game, with an import copy months ago. When a customer selects an import film, Sam supplies them with an all-region DVD player, free-of-charge.]