A Brit Defends the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics

Over the weekend, I got into a Twitter discussion with Ed Bark about the merits of the opening ceremonies spectacle. He didn’t much care for the spectacle. A couple of his tweets:

Sorry, but this is pretty embarrassing. Fabled Paul coming off like Vegas lounge act. Is this all there is?

OK, so it was a group-lighting of the torch by young prospective Olympians? You need one person. Period. Underwhelming.

Mark Davis was similarly unimpressed. After railing on the gig the night NBC broadcast, the next morning, he wrote:

Slept on it, still stunned by hideous Olympic opening ceremony. Sacrificed substance and eloquence for trendiness, and it Did. Not, Work.

Man, I just don’t get where those cats are coming from. I really enjoyed the opening ceremonies. I thought Paul McCartney had some good stuff. So I was heartened when Richard Patterson sent me a 2,000-word email saying how much he liked the show. Patterson, if you’re not familiar with him, is a painter of some note. He’s also British. Now, he admits that he didn’t watch the show on TV; he watched it in chunks on YouTube. He also wanted me to point out that Marina Hyde, in the Guardian, arrived at some of these same thoughts. But Hyde doesn’t live in Dallas, and she doesn’t send me email.

So, Mark Davis and Ed Bark, take this:

For me, and I expect a lot of British: The Queen and Daniel Craig, David Bechkam in a speed boat, Rowan Atkinson and Simon Rattle with the LSO, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child catcher, The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Brunel, the simulation of forging an Olympic ring right there in real time in the stadium, chimneys rising from nowhere, bucolic scenes with sheep, multiple descending Mary Poppinses emulating a Magritte painting, a rain cloud, the NHS sequence, children trampolining on giant Great Ormond Street hospital beds, Bradley Wiggens and the largest tuned bell, forged in Whitechapel, David Bowie and jetpacks, and, and I don’t know what to say. It touched so many nerves — emotional stuff.

I was stunned and humbled by what I saw of the ceremony. And proud. Been in tears, as were some of my 50-year-old stoic post-stiff-upper-lip compatriots that I talked to on the phone this morning. It was more than a national pride thing, but something else. I’m not sure what. A type of cultural catharsis perhaps.

I guess it’s the opposite of the implied corporatism and innate fascism of other ceremonies — the mock globalism/glocalism and jingoism of so many ceremonies that have to incorporate many things in a singular nebulous potpourri — and so become geometric abstractions that become empty symbols signifying cyphers for “achievement” or “discipline” in the “traditional” Olympic spirit. But this one was very different. All of these ceremonies, whether they do it consciously or not, project a politic of some description and it is interesting how each host nation, like it or not, can not help but reveal their true characteristics.

The British ceremony, wasn’t just a ceremony. It was truly wonderful theater and certainly not a potpourri from what I can see, but a genuine montage and rethreading of a nation’s shared historic identity that is war-torn and rebuilt many times over, reimagined and repopulated. It sought to reiterate certain achievements not necessarily unique to Britain in a manner that no one else would have thought or perhaps dared do — a suffragette sequence for example. One could argue all this stuff is culturally implicit and no longer necessary to illustrate, but no one thought to do this before and the cumulative effect of each theme became more and more poignant.

In essence, it was saying that sport alone is not conquering, just as love sometimes succumbs to darker forces. People have been excluded in the past. Sport is attached to culture as culture is attached to politics and society.

People forget or perhaps don’t care where things come from. Ai Weiwei was still being bopped on the head by Chinese authorities, despite (or because of) the fact he designed their stadium, long after the Beijing games were over. Americans will herniate at the idea of a NHS for seemingly centuries to come. All of these things are huge political realities and challenges.

The ceremony was not about a nation of slightly bonkers people. It was an expression of a very sane and tolerant people. It was truly an exposition on the triumphs of difference and expression, conflict and strife, fear and illness, toil and invention, ambition and imagination. It was the opposite of “plastic,” fascistic, communist, or corporate.

What was so touching about this, beyond its brilliance, was the lack of interference by the British government, who could so easily have objected to the NHS sequence; or how it allowed a collective independent voice (in a similar manner that the BBC used to have) that was not state run but was not commercial or saccharine either, that somehow remained a cultural political and creative tool at everyone’s disposal.

Instead of trying to project a spirit of freedom through vapid slogans, it projected a genuine democracy, including allowing the London Olympic committee and Danny Boyle to use the world’s stage to make an implicit criticism of current government cuts in NHS healthcare. Boyle was really simply celebrating and thanking the achievements of the NHS. It was of course all these things at once. But it’s commendable that Britain allowed the very process of freedom and democracy to be artfully acted out in encyclopedic form.

I’m sure aspects of the ceremony, or its whole timbre, will seem a bit Monty Pythons to many. It sort of is and it isn’t. To see it only as whacky or unhinged misses its point. To see it in that way might indicate the New World’s desire for culture to be reduced to information that is statistical, scientific and finite, sport-specific and apolitical — instead of porous, alive and in a constant state of flux. I can’t imagine a more ambitious statement than to underscore the value of allowing language, invention, and sport to converge into a poetic living thing.

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