Olympic Opening Ceremonies Review: London Calling

E: I’m such a sucker for the Olympics.  The pageantry gets me every time, making me cheer and sniffle and gasp in awe.

M: I love it too, and look forward not only to the competition and the athletes’ stories, but to the opening ceremonies, which have gotten more and more elaborate over the years.

C: Well, more elaborate on average for sure, but I don’t think anyone expected – or necessarily even wanted – London’s to rival Beijing’s rather, er, forceful tour de force opening ceremonies.

M: No, definitely not.

E: London is one of the greatest cities on earth, and I’ve spent most of my life reading about it and the people who live there.  I’m surprised, therefor, that the opening ceremony of the thirtieth Olympiad did not give me what I might have expected – King Arthur and the Roundtable, the Royal family, The Globe Theater, Dickens and Austen and Robin Hood and Monty Python and the Magna Carta, just to name the most obvious touchstones.  But that’s probably good, right?

M: I’m not so sure about that.  I thought that some of what they gave us was tremendous.  Other parts, ehhh, not so much.

C: Agreed. The show had highlights for sure, but it wasn’t overall what I had been hoping to see — which I suppose, as E demonstrated, comes down to a mixed bagful of delightful stereotypes.

E: That’s me, the walking cliche. I might end up agree with M too, even though the fact that it made me think was a good thing.

M: Let’s start with the good, though.  I loved the initial intro film, starting at the source of the Thames and speeding along it through the English countryside to London.  Very enjoyable.

C: Did you? I thought that was disappointment #1, because the sound synced up so poorly with the visuals. I liked what we were seeing, but not what we were hearing.

M: Maybe it was your TV.  I didn’t think I heard any sound problems, and just re-watched it and the sound matched up perfectly for me.

C: I don’t mean there were sound problems, I mean I thought the soundtrack as intended was not good. Just awkwardly brief fragments of iconic music and a lot of white noise in between. Uninspiring.

E: I’m with C – I wasn’t entranced by the sound of it, either.

M: Bah, you both missed it.  The “static” sound was the beating of the wings of the dragonfly that we were following as it flew down the Thames, and the clips of songs were timed perfectly, especially The Clash’s London Calling as we entered the Tube to go into London itself.  It was cool, case closed.  Moving along…

E: How gorgeous was the village inside the stadium, though, with the thatched cottage and real sheep and real sod with real wildflowers in it?

M: So great.  Honestly, I thought that that, along with “Glastonbury Tor” (the big hill with the tree on it that looked like Bagshot Row, Hobbiton, The Shire) were the best things they did.  They were soooo spot on and perfect for pastoral Britain.

E: I loved seeing the children dancing around a Maypole, too (although I had a small moment of sorrow because there were no Morris dancers).

M: I loved the Maypole too, so iconic.

E: And how thrilling to see Kenneth Branagh in his stovepipe hat as, essentially, one of the Masters from North & South?  (And no, I don’t mean the miniseries about the American Civil War.)

M: Then what the heck do you mean?

E: Sigh.  What do we do with him, C?

M: Go see The Hobbit this December?

E: Well, there is that, but what I meant is the amazing romantic miniseries set during the rise of industry in Britain.  You have to borrow one of our copies of it.

M: You know what, let’s move back to Branagh.  He was great. The smug grin, the hat, the cigar?  Couldn’t have been better.  Does it bother me that I have to explain who one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of a generation is to my kids and others by saying “It’s Gilderoy Lockheart”?  Maybe a little.  But yeah, he was great.

C: He had so much swagger. Cracked me up. Although it was a tricky mental adjustment to have Branagh quoting Shakespeare, dressed like a Victorian!

E: But, jeepers.  You have all of Shakespeare to quote from and this is what you choose?  Really?  I suppose the St. Crispin’s Day speech is too jingoistic?  Because in someways I think “We few, we happy few” sums up the glory of being an Olympic athlete pretty well.

M: To make your point, the quote they used was both unfamiliar and less than memorable to me.  It sounded good with Branagh performing it, but that’s all I remembered a few minutes later.

C: It was from The Tempest, and I think it was actually a really appropriate quotation for the Industrial Revolution, which is cool considering that’s worlds away from its original context. “The isle is full of noises,” but at least in Boyle’s vision, that industrial noise is a good thing for Britain, “hurt[ing] not” and inspiring dreams of wealth.

E: I was thinking of it as a mixture of “we’re opinionated, but we’re still friendly” and “we’re going to make some noise for the Olympics!” but that, too.  Still, it’s not as memorable as what I’d have expected.  We should have  a contest for most appropriate Shakespearean quote not used in Olympic ceremonies.

M: Well, you and C, and probably most of our audience, will far outpace me on that, but I like the idea!

C: Great idea. We do have clever readers. Suggestions in the comments, please!

E: So pretty nearly every British writer of the last 150 years or so has made some comment on the loss of the pastoral, the beauty of agrarian England.  Everyone from C. S. Lewis and his pal J. R. R. Tolkien to Elizabeth Gaskell and John Ruskin has bemoaned, in some fashion or another, the loss of the authentic pastoral Britain, of individual craftmanship.  I never actually realized that was because England lead the world in that regard; I knew they were faster at it than we were here, but I’d always assumed it was happen at the same rate across Europe. So it was fascinating to see Danny Boyle take the opposite tack: England was the engine for the industrial revolution that changed our world forever.  In that segment – for good or ill – we witness the birth of the modern era.

M: I think they did a good job of showing that it had both good and bad impacts.  We saw the power of industry, and the majesty that it can create in both the map of modern-day London that replaced the sod flooring, and the glowing Olympic rings that were created–

C: –which were so awesome; my favorite part of the show–

M: –especially when they burst into fireworks–

E:  –the rising smokestacks were pretty fantastic, and strangely majestic too —

M: –but the bad in the coal-smeared workers in their shabby clothes.  I thought that it was an outstanding visual portion of the show, with the smoke stacks rising from the floor of the stadium, the sod rolling away, the molten metal.  And the industrial revolution was one of the most influential events in world history, if not the most influential, so it made sense.

E: I can’t be the only one who thought the super cool thing they did to the floor was highly reminiscent of Isengard in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

M: By no means were you alone in that!  While we’re there, was my family the only one that thought the first of the giant Olympic rings was the One Ring?

C: Ha! Of course you weren’t. Forged in the fires of Mount Doom…

E: Of course I loved the kiddie lit section.  Cruella DeVille, the Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook and Lord Voldemort defeated by a plethora of Poppinses?  Marvelous.  I loved that the nurses and doctors were real nurses and doctors (some of whom could really cut a rug) and I liked the beds that were also trampolines.  Really the only bit of that segment I didn’t like was the creepy sleepy baby; who thought that was a good idea?

C: Yeah, that was seriously weird.

M: This is where the production started to go downhill for me.  Of course throwing a nod to all the amazing kiddie-lit that has come from Britain, especially and most recently Harry Potter, was a great move.  Having the gaggle of Poppinses defeat the baddies was very fun and clever.  However…  why the focus on the villains?  Why are all these little Brits having nightmares?  Why wouldn’t they be dreaming of Harry Potter, Peter Pan and Alice?

C: I have to agree. I thought the focus on the villains was a bit odd, and I felt like they left out a lot of equally classic characters. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t really great, and I say that as someone who considers British children’s literature one of life’s greatest joys.

E: That’s quite true, the concentration on iconic towering villains over life sized iconic heroes was a singular choice.

M: Exactly, not bad, but not great, and for this occasion great is really the requirement.  And I’m sorry, but no matter your political beliefs, the Opening Ceremonies are no place for politics, the part dealing with the NHS needed to be either left out or done differently.  If you want to have dancing doctors and nurses and sick kids on trampolines that could be fun, but leave the political side out.  The Olympics should be uniting, not riling up half the audience.

C: Was that political? I thought it was just a tribute. Unlike in the U.S., national healthcare is an established fact in Britain and has been for over half a century. I took that to be a “hey, thanks guys for working so hard to care for us!” – a little random to single them out, but it made some sense with the Great Ormond Street Hospital/Peter Pan connection.

E: Yeah, M, you need to get over the Scrooginess.

M: It’s not Scrooginess, it’s a question of time and place.  If they’d left it at the connection between Barrie and the hospital it would have been fine.  Let’s move on before we lose our Olympic spirit.  And by we I mean me.  And maybe our readers. 🙂

E: Moving on, then.  I dunno how I felt about the “We invented the internet/Frankie and June say thanks, Tim” segment.  I mean, some good music and cute costumes.  And June was adorable.

M: I thought that that whole section missed.  Of course, I spent half of it looking up Tim Berners-Lee, finding that he and another programmer conceptualized, and maybe began to implement, the web (not the internet, that was Al Gore, of course).  And admittedly, like the pod race in The Phantom Menace, if I could have gotten a version of it without the commentators it would have been immensely better.

C: Ha! Good one. And I agree, especially if the sound was turned up. Anyone else feel like watching the ceremonies on TV would have been a way more immersive and impressive experience if they’d cranked the volume (preferably high enough to drown out the constant needless remarks)?

M: Once again, I think you’re having problems with your TV, the volume on mine was fine.

C: I didn’t think that was it, but my TV does suck… (*coughbirthdaycough*)

E: I thought the volume level was okay, but I’m unsure of their music choices.  There was pretty great stuff from the 60s to the 80s, but the last two decades seemed totally skimped on.  They couldn’t come up with anything better from the 90s than that rapper clown? I seem to remember, gee, I don’t know, Oasis, and the Spice Girls being international smashes just to name a couple.

M: Really, you’ve got all of British music to choose from and you’re going for the Spice Girls?

C: Well, they are characteristic of the era.

M: So if the U.S. gets the Olympics again should we have Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez perform?

E: Had you even seen the clown guy before?  He was so much better than the Spice Girls?  I can’t believe I’m defending the Spice Girls, but you have to know what I mean.

M: Back to the whole “we’re going to do a tribute to social media” part, I thought that was just weak.  They would have been far better off weaving a better version of the story (without the house, but keeping the “tube” light-sticks) through a more focused tribute to British rock (note, this would not include the Spice Girls).  That’s more relevant to Britain than a guy that lives and teaches at MIT, who invented the web while living in Switzerland, right?

C: I like that idea much better. Putting a little romance plot to it didn’t do much for me but was fine; the technology tribute was one too many levels. Just dance to the music!

E: Yes.  Tube-lights cool; house, not so much. Teens text and tweet and use Facebook and snog; cute, but not really Olympic level stuff.

M: Again, this fell in the “good, but good’s not good enough” category for me.

C: And then of course there was the segment we didn’t see, or that many of us watched the next day on Youtube: the tribute to the victims of the 2005 London bombing which NBC cut from their broadcast. Can I just say: tacky tacky tacky? I don’t actually think it was a great tribute, but that’s not the point at all. You don’t cut a memorial to terror victims.

E: So not cool.  What kind of cretins do they think we are, implying that Americans wouldn’t care or remember?  Right up there with the IOC refusing to make any reflection on the forty year anniversary of the Munich Massacre.

M: Oh, I heard the Munich thing (which I was ok with being separate from the opening ceremony, it’s not like 40 is a particularly special anniversary number) but somehow I didn’t hear about the terror victims tribute, I’ll have to go look it up.

C: You can watch it here. Don’t mind the absurdly rabble-rousing article title.

E: Can you imagine how we’d feel if there was a 911 tribute moment and the other countries blocked it out?  This was not okay!

M: Agreed, very bad on you, NBC.  First you make us endure Matt Lauer and whatever her name is–

E: –Meredith Vieira, his former Today Show cohost —

M: –blathering all over the ceremony like it’s the Thanksgiving Day Parade (it’s not, dammit, treat it like a bigger deal!) and then they chop the terror victim tribute?  Boo!  While we’re booing, E, I believe you have a complaint?

E: Can we all join the rest of America in collectively booing Ralph Lauren for a) having the USA uniforms made in China, and b) making his logo frickin’ huge? It’s not the United States of Polo, dude.

M: I have to say, I didn’t pay close enough attention to them to see the logo.  If it was that huge, that gives you an idea of how closely I looked at them, which in turn gives you an idea of how interesting I found the outfits.

C: Ditto.

M: And that’s why you’re my favorite.  😉

E: (Rolls eyes.)  As usual, I thought the countries that had the coolest uniforms were the smaller African and South East Asian countries.  Don’t wear a track suit, and don’t try to look like flight attendants.   I mean, you have to love the flag bearers who come dressed as if about to throw flaming torches in a luau.  Not to mention respect them for doing it in the cold.

M: No doubt, the more colorful the clothes, the more unique they were, the better.

E: Although I did like the Brit’s in white and gold – that was a neat statement.  And the Czech team marching in electric blue rainboots?  That’s a nicely comic statement when competing in a famously rainy city.

M: One of the things that cracked me up both that night watching, and the rest of the weekend talking to people or overhearing conversations about it, was how many people have no clue about geography.  Now, admittedly, I have had a deep and abiding love of maps since I was a wee (not Wii) child, and continue to study geography, but boy do we suck as a nation at teaching it!  Most comments I heard or saw on Facebook, and the discussion with my beautiful-yet-geographically-challenged wife, were about how few countries people had heard of.  And not just places like Kiribati (a south pacific island nation) or Kyrgyzstan (a former Soviet republic in the Steppes of Russia), but places closer to home like Belize or Antigua and Barbuda.

C: I haven’t heard of Barbuda either. I hope I can at least still be beautiful.

M: It’s Antigua and Barbuda, one country with two names.  I expect more from you, C.

C: I’ve heard of Antigua! Jane Austen talks about it…

M: If you say so.  Now, to further show off my geographical prowess, did anyone else play the game of “which of the ‘countries’ aren’t really countries, but are really principalities that are allowed to compete independently”?  Riveting game, really!  And yes, I’m talking about you, Puerto Rico, Palestine, American Samoa, the Cook Islands, and both versions of the Virgin Islands.

E: I love seeing that, too.  My college roommate was always so proud that her home island got to march in the Olympics even though they’re a protectorate; the best of both worlds, she used to say.

M: Then, of course, there were the Independent Atheletes.  How horrible that they live in places that are so bad that they refuse to represent them (like the whole Sudan/South Sudan civil war one).  Ugh.

E: But how thrilled were they to compete?  Just to be there, even.  I actually think it’s very cool that the IOC allows them to do it without a country.

M: Oh, I agree, they were out-of-their-minds excited.  And since the Olympics are about unity and togetherness through sport, it is great that they wouldn’t exclude them.  I just hope the fourth athlete gets his visa situation taken care of and makes it for the games!

E: Agreed. And moving to the final act of the show, I love love loved the doves on bicycles segment.  Just so stunning.

M: That was very cool.  Can’t for the life of me remember what it was for, but it looked cool.

C: I think I missed that bit. To youtube!

M: Okay, these are a bit out of sequence, but I remember a couple other things that were memorable, one that I thought was overrated, but good, and the other was fantastic.  The overrated was the James Bond and the Queen bit.  I thought that it was fantastically sporting of her to take part, but even my 5-year-old knew she wasn’t actually jumping out of that copter, and for all the build up and the “this is the part everyone’s going to be talking about tomorrow” from the Parade announcers, it made it fall short for me.

C: I disagree. The one misstep was not having her enter the stadium looking as if she’d actually jumped – if they’d staged that, it would have been amazing. But even though I knew it was a gag, that didn’t diminish my enjoyment one bit!

M: Well, that makes one of us.  Good for you (I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically).

C: I love that they actually got Her Majesty to participate in a funny bit with 007. (And your five-year-old may have known better, but my grown-up friend wondered if it was real!)

E: I thought it was pretty funny, but the hype did irritate me.  The Queen and her corgies were great sports, even if no one in my house actually thought she jumped out of the helicopter.  I don’t know what she has against smiling, though.

C: As a person with a naturally serious-seeming expression, I’ll be the devil’s advocate and say: why should the lady have to paste on a smile for the cameras? I’m perfectly willing to believe she was enjoying herself hugely despite the lack of facial performance. (Though I’m amused that her deadpan expression has become a meme.)

M: The part that I LOVED, on the other hand, was Rowan Atkinson and the Chariots of Fire theme.  So, so, so perfect.

C: I love the song so much I was almost annoyed to have him doing a bit over the orchestra — I wanted to hear them! But it was very much the British sense of humor.

M: Perfectly British, perfect moment in the ceremony, and perfect reference to a brilliant movie which of course makes me want to watch it again, and (and for anyone that knows me this is a shocker) cheer for the Brits to beat the Americans.

E: Well, maybe not outside of that movie, but I definitely want them to do well.

M: Sorry, I meant in the movie.  In real life I’ll cheer for the Brits to beat pretty much anyone else, though.  Back to Atkinson’s great sketch, that more than anything got me in a British mood.  Well, that and the John Cleese DirecTV commercial. Ooh, and one more thing!  Paul McCartney, at what, 112 years old, closing the show?  Pretty great, but couldn’t they have gotten Ringo to play with him?  And maybe brought in a few folks like Clapton, Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend, Elton John, and other legends, and then maybe tied in current folks like Marcus Mumford, and had it be like the ending of the Grammys where everyone jams together on one massive song?  Wouldn’t that have been incredible?

E: Yeah, that would have been pretty spectacular.  I actually wondered if the band singing “Come Together” was made up of Beatles’ kids, but no, just the Arctic Monkeys.

M: Better than Spice Girls, that’s for sure.  As for the legends, like any of them would have turned it down?

E: Maybe they did.  I have trouble imagining Boyle wouldn’t have asked.  Hell, he asked the Queen to pretend to jump out of an airplane, so he’s clearly not lacking in chutzpah.  Call me an idiot–

M: –idiot–

E: –but it just hadn’t occurred to me that the copper kettles those girls in white dresses carried in for each country were going to be the cauldron.  I completely love the idea, though.  Just spectacular, especially when it started out in that glorious flower shapes, and snapped up.

M: Really?  Spectacular?  Maybe I’m too hard on these things, but to me every torch lighting ceremony is judged against Barcelona’s stunning archer shooting a flaming arrow up to a cauldron hundreds of feet in the air.  Beijing’s dude “running” around the top ring of the stadium was great, but still didn’t beat the archer for me.

C: Yeah, flaming arrow wins every time.

E: I’m not saying it beat the arrow (because nothing beats a flaming arrow) but I loved the visual of the “petals” folding up into the cauldron.  And the idea of having the cauldron be made up of smaller flames from the individual countries?  Come on, that’s so on point.

M: I got a little excited when they showed that roller coaster-looking structure outside the stadium, thinking that might be the torch’s eventual home, but alas, no.  I liked the concept of it being built of things from each country, and the visual from above was cool, but the execution of it seemed contrived.  Maybe if they had each country make a copper kettle of their own to bring, and each one had some significance to that country in shape or craftsmanship or something that could have been described as the country was announced, then I would have been more on board.  Instead it seemed like they just put a kid carrying a piece of the cauldron with each country.  I don’t know.

E: Oh, whatever.  We can agree to disagree on that one.

M: Also, the final torch carriers?  That actually felt insulting to me, to have seven kids who no one will likely ever hear from again, rather than to bestow that honor on one of the greatest athletes in the country’s history, like Roger Bannister.  It seemed to me like a slap in the face of every accomplishment the country ever had, saying that they weren’t good enough, so they felt like they needed to go outside the box.  That box is there for a reason, because it’s a freaking awesome box.  Highest honor kind of box.  Stay in it.

E: Now here we’re in perfect agreement.  I see what they were going for, but I didn’t like the break with tradition.

C: And England can usually be relied upon for tradition!

M: While we can usually be relied on to end with a pithy line of some sort.  This time we’re breaking with tradition, and ending abruptly!

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2 comments on “Olympic Opening Ceremonies Review: London Calling

  1. Pam says:

    Hey, Sibs, I thought the torch was cool. Flaming arrow is awesome, but how do you top it? You can’t, so you emphasize the spirit of unity and harmony in a pretty light… Bannister! 4-minute mile, shares a birthday with Alicia and Maddy, that would have been good. I liked the future athletes though, didn’t love it, it was nice, not amazing… Surprised you weren’t disappointed by the lack of David Tennant carrying the torch. Greg was. They should have let Charles (as in Prince) do it because he’ll never get to be King.

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