I think the Olympics are great. I especially like the opening ceremony.
Actually, the opening ceremony is pretty much the only thing I like. I find the athletic events dull. (Over the past few days I have watched bits of volleyball, and cycling, and swimming, and I cannot stifle my yawns.)
But the opening ceremonies – yowzah! They are an opportunity for the host country to tell a story about itself. We all remember the powerfully choreographed opening of the Beijing Olympics, with 2008 drummers in sync with one another, and later the adorable children from all over China, in ethnic costumes. (I vaguely recall that one of the children was lip-synching a song, but let us not speak of that.) I also recall the Vancouver Olympics, with a sort of rippling pool of light in which we saw Native American images, and a huge bear, and fiddlers, and – well, all kinds of things.
The London ceremony was huge, and sloppy, and very endearing. We knew in advance that it was going to be the “English countryside,” and snippy commentators were predicting sheep and cottages. Well, we did in fact get sheep and cottages. We also got the countryside (literally) rolled away. We got the World-Tree ripped from the top of Glastonbury Tor. We got Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” growing out of the floor. We got suffragettes, and the Jarrow Marchers, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Danny Boyle, the director of “Slumdog Millionaire,” did a wonderful thing: he tried his very best to include everything. And I think he may well have succeeded. (I think he put up a posterboard: “What is the UK?” And he, and everyone, put up notes, for days and days. And he included everything that everyone suggested.)
We got music, and weather reports, and Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod,” and “Jerusalem.” We got J. K. Rowling. We got Tim Berners-Lee. We got the Stones, and Cruella de Ville. We got Paul McCartney! We got the Sex Pistols. We got the Queen (the actual Queen!) and her corgis, with Daniel Craig as James Bond. We got allusions to Austin Powers and J. R. R. Tolkien. We got Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
We got an elaborate salute to the UK’s National Health Service, right in front of Mitt and Ann Romney, and I would have loved to ask them how they enjoyed it.
The Beijing ceremony in 2008 was about unity and power. The London ceremony was about diversity. The choreography – dear God! – was elaborate in the extreme, but it seemed almost random: groups of marchers drifting together, marching through one another’s ranks, and separating again.
One of the Financial Times commentators last weekend said, nicely: “The parts that didn’t work highlighted the parts that did.” Exactly right. The rock-and-roll section was a little long, and maybe Rowan Atkinson / Mister Bean was a little over-the-top, but it all worked. (A lot of people on Tumblr seem to think that the Olympic cauldron, which only came together in the last moments of the ceremony, was the Eye of Sauron. I don’t think so. But – who knows?)
Sadly, I had to watch this ceremony on American television, on NBC. Matt Lauer (whom I thought was smarter than this) treated it as the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, and giggled and talked through the whole thing. Bob Costas (to whom I am used by now, after many Olympics) thinks he has to do color commentary through the whole thing. My Tumblr idol, wellthatsjustgreat, wrote some wonderfully scathing commentary on Messrs. Lauer and Costas, which I encourage you to read. In effect, they almost ruined the thing, especially the Parade of Nations. (Well, NBC helped; they decided that we didn’t need to see whole chunks of the ceremony, and dumped in a fatuous interview with Michael Phelps. Also, I am told by a correspondent in the UK that the BBC coverage was even worse.)
I have the ceremony on the DVR. I have already watched bits over again. I still haven’t gotten all of the British-culture references. I probably never will.
It was wonderful, nonetheless.
(And now I have to go back and watch the Vancouver ceremony from 2010, because I still don’t have all of that one figured out either.)