Zidane v Kobe: Documentary Films and Sport Cultures

Kobe coverLast week, as the new NBA season settled into its groove, Spike Lee released the DVD of his documentary film Kobe Doin’ Work.  The film, which follows Kobe Bryant through a single 2008 game for the LA Lakers, intrigues me as a fan of documentaries, as a casual NBA fan, and as a fan of the movie that ostensibly inspired Kobe Doin’ Work—the 2006 soccer opus Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

My intrigue also relates to the fact that while I’ve always been a soccer fan, as a red-blooded American boy I also grew up watching the NBA and other “American sports” leagues.  And I often find myself engaging in the debate about whether different sports fit better or worse within particular cultural contexts.  Do Americans really prefer basketball to soccer because there is more scoring?  Do Europeans really prefer soccer because it is more emotional and artistic?  Or are different sport cultures just an accident of the fact that we tend to like what we know?  Comparing Kobe Doin’ Work with Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait strikes me as a chance to tangentially address that debate.

Of course, the movies are not directly comparable in that they were made for different purposes.  Kobe was made for ESPN by Spike Lee, who is almost as famous for his NBA fandom and his courtside presence at New York Knicks games as he is for his filmmaking.  The makers of Zidane, on the other hand, are more artists than filmmakers—and, one suspects, more artists than sports fans.  Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Scottish and French respectively, are both more known in the art world for their expositions than their filmmaking.  And their work has a decidedly eclectic European aesthetic, particularly considering the movie was filmed in Spain with funding from Iceland.  It is probably safe to assume that ESPN and the Icelandic film council have very different ideas about what makes for a good documentary—but that itself may say something about the cultures of sport.

The films

While many reviewers have noted that Kobe Doin’ Work was inspired by Spike Lee’s encounter with Zidane at the Cannes Film Festival, fewer have noted that Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was itself preceded by a 1971 German film Fußball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before) following George Best through an entire Manchester United game.  Though the makers of Zidane only learned about Football as Never Before after initiating their own work, the idea of immersing oneself in a consideration of a single athlete’s experience seems to appeal as a bridge between sport and art.


And Zidane is very much an artistic consideration of a single athlete’s experience.  The film relies on 17 cameras to follow Zidane, and Zidane alone, through an otherwise ordinary 2005 Spanish league game between Real Madrid and Villarreal.  The shots focus on ground level views of Zidane’s movements amidst the sounds of the crowd alternated occasionally with pixilated downward angles and background commentary, constantly reminding the viewer that the game itself is an artificial production.  There is no audible narration, but late in the first half subtitles appear to offer Zidane’s own abstracted thoughts:

“As a child I had a running commentary in my head when I was playing. It wasn’t really my own voice.  It was the voice of Pierre Cangioni, a television anchor from the 1970’s. Every time I heard his voice I would run towards the TV, as close as I could get. For as long as I could.  It wasn’t that his words were so important but the tone, the accent, the atmosphere, was everything.”

In Kobe, on the other hand, the atmosphere of the game is primarily a platform for the player’s own voice-over describing his game.  The film uses 30 cameras to follow Bryant through an otherwise ordinary 2008 game between the LA Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, moving from some pre-game preparation through most of the game’s action.  The camera shots of Bryant playing come at all angles, and allow for some appreciation of his athletic grace.  But unlike Zidane, Bryant also offers a constant verbal commentary on each scene and shot, most of which involves explaining mundane details and clichéd observations: “that home court advantage is so important;” “I hate turnovers;” “My high school coach told me a long time ago: you don’t build a house without blueprints.”

The commentary comes to dominate the film—in the same way many American soccer broadcasters feel compelled to talk through every second of play.  Even in an otherwise complementary review of Kobe Doin’ Work, a basketball writer noted how Bryant’s commentary overwhelms:

“If there was anything I came away with from watching the full ninety minutes of Kobe Doin’ Work, it was this: Kobe does not shut up. Not in the locker room, not in the huddles, not on the court. Heck, not even on the voiceover. If we are to take this film of one game as a sample representation of what it is like to play basketball with Kobe Bryant, then being a teammate of Kobe Bryant must border on unbearable. Because Kobe is constantly telling his teammates what they are doing wrong.”

The contrasts

Kobe_Doin'_Work DVD

I’m tempted to claim that the unfortunate tendency to expect players to both play and offer verbal insight into their play is distinctly American, but that’s probably not quite right.  Realistically, the contrast between Zidane and Kobe is not so much Europe v America as it is different hybrids.  In fact, in watching Zidane I took a strange pleasure in multiple scenes where the players’ lugubrious intensity took place in front of large electronic advertising boards promoting Kellogg’s Frosties with the cartoon image of Tony the Tiger—a prototype of silly American marketing.  And, similarly, Bryant (who spent much of his childhood in Italy) seemed to take great pleasure in emphasizing his ability to converse on the court with his European teammates in Italian and Spanish—and even playfully used his soccer skills to juggle a basketball on his way to one timeout.

Even the influences on the filmmakers goes both ways, as Douglas Gordon notes a debt to American football in describing his vision for Zidane in an interesting interview with the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

“I wasted my youth watching 16mm, fantastically well-photographed NFL [footage]. Beautiful stuff, [shot by] cameramen who’d just come back from the war [in Vietnam]. Seagulls might flap by in front of them, and it wouldn’t be edited out. There was something rough about the NFL stuff that we wanted. There’s a couple of scenes in Zidane where the camera drifts up. That was deliberate, but it’s a reference to the sort of accidental beauty that can happen in that type of footage.”

That emphasis on “accidental beauty” is, however, more characteristic of Zidane rather than Kobe.  Both at the start of Zidane and then at halftime we are told that the scene is Madrid, Saturday April 23rd 2005 and “who could have imagined that in the future an ordinary day like this might be forgotten or remembered as anything more or less significant than a walk in the park.”  And at the very end, after Zidane has been red-carded for charging and swinging his way into a scrum of players that he originally had nothing to do with, the subtitles note only that “magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all.  Nothing at all.”

On the whole I enjoyed such affectations, but I also understand that watching Zidane, and watching soccer, can be frustrating precisely because it does sometimes seem to be “nothing at all.”  When I sit down to watch my Trail Blazers play an NBA game I can be assured of a consistent baseline of entertainment, but when I watch soccer I have to actively engage.  In fact, the rhythm and flow of Zidane the film is much like the game itself.  At first there is the settling in.  For twenty minutes we just watch Zidane move, and get used to his rhythms.  Then come the subtitles, the thoughtful interlude where Zidane’s words allow us to consider the game’s meaning.

In the second half the pace quickens, alternating between words, movements, and abstract images.  There are subtle touches of aggression, with Zidane engaging in small bits of contact while his face—without changing expression—becomes more angry.  The tension builds, accompanied by haunting music from Mogwai, and then for perhaps the first time Zidane smiles.  He has a brief exchange with Roberto Carlos, they share a laugh, and we briefly relax.  Minutes later a Real player drives along the endline, a Villarreal defender adds relish to his tackle, and Zidane accelerates into a brief rage.  When the referee shows him the red card, he shows no emotion.  But the emotion of this meaningless game feels suddenly overwhelming.  The movie ends.

There is energy to Kobe Doin Work as well, but it is more a persistent buzz—a bubbling enthusiasm that feels like a summer’s day at the carnival.  It is an easy entertainment, built partially around sideshows.  In fact, when American sports fans criticize soccer for lacking in scoring and action, I often wonder how they define action—watching an NBA game is as much about commercial breaks and sideshows as it is about basketball.  If I spend two hours watching soccer I know I will see 90 minutes of the game; if I spend two and a half hours watching my Trail Blazers I see 48 minutes of basketball and learn much about the latest specials at Standard TV & Appliance.

Considering the differences in the action, it is perhaps ironic that the key to understanding both films seems to lie not during the play but during halftime.  In Kobe we follow Bryant into the locker room where he leads the team in an analysis of film from the first half.  Having this kind of access to a locker room is considered a rare coup in a sports broadcast, and the scene serves to highlight that the documentary is about the importance of Kobe mastering the game.

At halftime in Zidane we leave Madrid, running through a collage of the world on that particular day.  An Ipanema beach puppet show.  Floods in Serbia-Montegnegro.  Elian Gonzales on Cuban TV.  And most powerfully: an image of a man fleeing a bombing carrying an injured child and the text “Car bomb in Najaf, Iraq kills 9 in escalating attacks.”  On the side amidst the horror another man is wearing a replica Zidane jersey.  The interlude is brief and seems random, but it clearly conveys that the documentary is intended to raise, rather than answer, questions: how can a game simultaneously mean so much and so little?


“The script has already been written”

Some critics find Zidane too sycophantic—occasional Pitch Invasion contributor Jennifer Doyle discussed the film in an excellent review and argues: “Zidane … is too beautiful, too controlled, too glossy. You can buy the DVD in supermarkets in France – a sign of how deeply the film co-operates with and expands Zidane’s celebrity.”  But for me that cooperation is part of the fun—I know the athletic gifts of Zidane and Bryant do not warrant real hero status, but I willingly submit to a degree of that illusion (though only to a degree).

If I have a complaint of both movies it is that they portray the game as being about individuals—though they do so in slightly different ways.  In Kobe the individualism lies in the naked celebration of Bryant’s every move and thought; in Zidane the individualism lies in the lonely intensity Zidane exudes through his movements and his portrait.  But those movements are themselves beautiful—the movies share a core appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of the elite athlete.

And together they highlight how much of our fandom depends upon where we happen to be born, and the sport cultures we happen to learn.  Kobe Doin’ Work is much more of a jaunty piece that offers basic entertainment—which seems appropriate to the ethos of the NBA.  Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is much more of an abstract impression that requires some active engagement—which seems to befit European soccer.  Ultimately, as a subtitle in Zidane observes “Sometimes when you arrive in the stadium you feel that everything has already been decided.  The script has already been written.”

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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