To Hirshhorn Filmgoers, One-Man Act Is All on Pitch

"Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait," filmed before the soccer star's World Cup head-butt, makes art of sport. (Courtesy Of Douglas Gordon And Philippe Parreno)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A minor miracle occurred Thursday night at the Hirshhorn Museum.

A new piece of contemporary art truly worked.

A crowd of ordinary Joes and Jills sat through a 90-minute, plot-free piece of experimental cinema. Instead of grumbling, shifting in their seats or simply leaving, the overflow audience for "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait" sat engrossed in a strange movie about the soccer superstar. (He's best known in this country for delivering a notorious head-butt at last year's World Cup, but in Europe he was already a god.) In the film, a recent work by Scottish avant-gardist Douglas Gordon and his French colleague Philippe Parreno, the artists pull apart a single game played by their hero. The near-miraculous result has been receiving raves from the most dedicated lovers of artistic esoterica, but, on Thursday, it also managed to satisfy a roomful of soccer fans, in it for the sport.

Things could have gone worse.

The free screening had been in the paper the week before, so 40 minutes before the 8 p.m. show, a line of hopeful sports fans stretched around the Hirshhorn's plaza. It became clear that not all of them would fit into the 260-seat auditorium, so rain checks were handed out for an extra showing at 10.

Inside the auditorium, the crowd was not at all the norm for a Hirshhorn movie night. Instead of the usual artsies -- students dressed in hipster gear, business-suited collectors and art-world veterans in black -- the audience seemed mostly to be soccer buffs. There were sporty young couples out on dates, families with kids in soccer shirts, groups of close-cropped guys who looked as though they might have spent more time on the soccer pitch than in museums. You heard almost as much French and Spanish as English. There were few of the art-world regulars; they must have shown up too late to get in. (The Hirshhorn security guards e-mailed the organizers after the show, asking about the crowd. They said how nice they were, compared with the usual audience.)

As the movie got underway, I started to fear rebellion. The film begins with a shot of a television screen on which we see the broadcast of a soccer game. Gordon's movie camera zooms in on the TV, then on the game, then on a single player and keeps on zooming and zooming until the two teams, in white and yellow on the bright-green pitch, dissolve into an abstract pattern of colored dots. For a minute, the Hirshhorn's new audience looked set to get restive.

But then the film got up to speed, and all of us, soccer fans and sports-ignorant art critics alike, were transfixed. Gordon and Parreno had constructed a portrait of Zinedine Zidane at work that was new to most of us. Using 17 cameras, the artists had simply kept close tabs on the great player for the duration of a game between Real Madrid (Zidane's team) and a rival, Villareal, in Madrid on April 23, 2005. (The piece was made, that is, before the famous head-butt.) Instead of documenting the whole scope of the match, the artists focused only on their hero, isolated from the action in which he played a part. (The ref throws Zidane out shortly before the game ends, but that's treated as a minor concluding detail, not a dramatic denouement.) For these filmmakers, at least, the brilliant celebrity footballer matters more than the moving ball the game's supposed to be about. As far as they're concerned, he is the ball you want to keep your eyes on.

Occasionally, the film lets you see Zidane make an impressive move, stealing the ball from an opponent or assisting on a goal. But mostly, he's either watching something happening off screen or running slowly from one place to another. Since the camera almost always follows him, he might as well be running in place; there's no sense of an origin or destination. Zidane is very closely miked, so you hear a word or two from him, sometimes even an insult, but mostly he's a silent, contemplative force, lost in the roar of the enthusiastic onlookers.

There's surprisingly little artiness in the whole piece. Or rather, the film's peculiarities seem to be there to serve its subject matter, the way a more standard technique might. That's why they're not off-putting to almost anyone. They reveal the artists' profound respect for their subject, and a desire to use the tools of current art to come to grips with him: with all his gestures and tics, with who and how he is, and with what it is to be him on the soccer field, where he is most himself. Or at least, the only him that truly matters to his fans.

This is portraiture in its purest form, as practiced by Titian or Rembrandt, only made with more recent technology for an audience that consumes its heroes on TV.

The crowd at the Hirshhorn reacted a bit differently to all of this than other museum-goers might: They cheered at Zidane's occasional good move and yelled when they thought their hero had been fouled. They didn't keep that grim, this-must-be-good-for-me silence inculcated into art-world regulars. But even in the work's many slower moments, when almost nothing happened, this unusual Hirshhorn crowd seemed focused on the film, and captivated by it. They didn't know they were supposed to give it reverent respect; they just did.

The art simply did its trick.

Not for everyone, of course. When the lights went up, an elderly man, who had been muttering throughout, proclaimed in French that it was a piece of garbage. Casting about for supporters, he seemed surprised he couldn't raise a mob.

Outside, a bunch of bulky guys, in crew-cuts and mirror sunglasses that wrapped around their heads, said they were fans of soccer, not of art. And that this art had helped illuminate their favorite soccer star.

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