Some images aspire to be something beyond just images. They seek to become objects of veneration: icons. Angelina Jolie, as she appears in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, is more than a mere actress or an over-publicized movie star: She’s an icon of suffering. Zinedine Zidane, at least in Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s portrait, is not simply a star athlete or even the world’s greatest soccer player: He is projected as 21st-Century Man.
Jolie doesn’t perform in Changeling; she resolutely presents herself to the audience for admiration. The main attraction in Eastwood’s two-fisted snake-pit weepie is the spectacle of Jolie’s steely self-possessed suffering. As she lost her husband to Islamic terrorists in A Mighty Heart, Our Lady of Humanitarian Narcissism here endures another dreadful fate: losing her child to a mob of knaves, know-nothings, and psychos, even as she’s persecuted by the entire state institutional apparatus of California.
Based on a forgotten tabloid saga that illuminates a particularly lurid Los Angeles guilty secret and might have appealed equally to neo-noirist James Ellroy or cultural historian Mike Davis, Changeling is set in a late-’20s L.A. that Eastwood has lovingly repopulated with the streetcars and Model T’s of his own childhood. Jolie’s Christine Collins is a single mom and phone-company supervisor. One afternoon, her nine-year-old son vanishes from their modest bungalow; five months later, the LAPD announces with all due hoopla that the boy has been found. A reunion is staged, reporters are invited, and although dazed Christine immediately realizes that the cops are handing her another kid, she’s told to take him home on a “trial basis—he has nowhere else to go.”
The Collins mystery is predicated at least in part on the historical Christine’s extreme suggestibility. Why did she accept this strange boy as her own? But this is subsumed in a greater mystery: Who could possibly compel Angelina Jolie to do anything she didn’t want to do? Despite ample physical evidence that the child is not hers, as well as assistance from a teacher, a dentist, and a self-regarding radio preacher (John Malkovich), Christine is browbeaten by the police, bullied by the press, and finally committed to a local bedlam seemingly filled with people whose mental illness consisted in pissing off the cops.
There’s no denying Changeling‘s moldy grandeur. The movie is Eastwood’s version of a silent-era melodrama (and given the anachronistic psycho-babble, it might better have been one). Who doesn’t want to like Changeling? Clint Eastwood too is an icon. He succeeded John Wayne as America’s greatest cowboy and, billed as America’s greatest living director, glared out from the cover of last month’s Sight & Sound, a craggy object of uncritical devotion. It’s been many years (and many mediocre films) since the near-successive appearance of Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart, and Unforgiven established Eastwood’s directorial reputation. Where the existential war film Letters From Iwo Jima attested to his viability, Changeling signals only his ambition.
Eastwood’s latest is an effort to be bracketed with Chinatown or L.A. Confidential in mythologizing the secret history of Los Angeles. But burdened by a convoluted script and an ensemble-proof leading lady, the director fails to illuminate a particular corrupt system. Meanwhile, this static, sluggish movie grows ever darker—even as it encompasses murder, pederasty, captivity, intimations of the Manson family, multiple courtroom scenes, and a death-row confrontation. For her part, Jolie reverts to her goth-girl origins—her mask of tragedy suggesting a skull costumed for Halloween in a cloche hat and ghoulishly kissable wax red lips.
Jolie is most convincing in her demand for recognition—and Eastwood is glad to oblige. Late in the movie, Christine confidently predicts that It Happened One Night will be the surprise Oscar winner of 1934. Soon after, she strikes a pose identified with Stella Dallas, the motherhood tearjerker for which Barbara Stanwyck received her first nomination in 1937. Image trumps performance. One needn’t be clairvoyant to know that somewhere in Hollywood, someone is imagining her acceptance speech.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a 90-minute piece by the video artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, tracks the great French-Algerian soccer player Zinedine Zidane during the course of a single match.
The game, played between Zidane’s team Real Madrid and Villareal on April 23, 2005, is shown in its entirety. The artists pick up their subject amid a welter of pixels and isolate him on the field. Zidane is variously shown in close-up, middle shot, and long shot, with the occasional overhead, and, despite the collisions or pile-ups that sometimes occur in front of him, he’s most often alone in the frame. The constant attention mystifies his skills even as it burnishes his charisma. He’s set apart not only as the piece’s sole subject but because he’s hyper-alert, continually responding to invisible forces, raptly focused on events beyond the frame.
Although the artists subtract everything apart from Zidane’s game, they don’t impose a particularly strong conceptual grid on the material. The game is neither deconstructed nor defamiliarized. Meanwhile, the untranslated Spanish commentary is punctuated by a mix of groans, thuds, and crowd noises, and set to a droning New Age–y score by the Scottish band Mogwai. Zidane sweats, spits, and shifts position as the 17 cameras Gordon and Parreno had at their disposal watch him watching. Engaged in mystical contemplation, Zidane waits for his chance—to do what? (His most mysterious action is a sudden smile.) The star contributes to one scoring play. Late in the game, he gets a pat on the back from teammate David Beckham, then draws a foul and is sent to the showers. A final title, “Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all,” seems unintentionally apt.
Gordon’s previous work—the famous 24 Hour Psycho installation, which slowed Hitchcock’s thriller to a glacial crawl; his superimposition of The Song of Bernadette over The Exorcist—served to monumentalize ephemeral moments. Zidane does the same, to lesser effect.
Adding to the mediocrity is the fact that this very piece was done decades ago by the German filmmaker Hellmuth Costard. Shot with only seven 16mm cameras, Costard’s 1970 Football as Never Before provided precisely the same sort of portrait of Manchester United superstar George Best. Costard’s mode was necessarily more low-tech. But because he favored middle shots that gave Best space to perform his “solo” activities, the result was less overweening, more disorienting, and not nearly so iconic. Best appeared to work; Zidane simply is.