Olympic Opening Ceremonies Review: Sochi ABCs

E: I’ve said it before; I love me some pageantry.  On the other hand, I’m a child of the Cold War.  I actually visited Soviet Russia as a teen during the beginnings of Glastnost, and as a young adult, I saw the system fall.  I’ve seen the specter of it rise again in former KGB goon Vladimir Putin.

M: Hey, hey, hey. We’re relatively anonymous on here (pun intended), but watch what you say: Putin’s reach is far and wide. I don’t want you getting poisoned like a Ukrainian political leader or anything.

E: Thanks, bro, although I’m sure Mr. Putin has a lot more on his mind than being unappreciated by one American.  But back to my point: I love ballet and can appreciate a country with such fervor for the arts. And yet, obviously, I’ve seen the same Sochi Fail posts as everyone else.

C: So E, what you’re saying, I think, is that you have mixed feelings about Sochi and everything these games represent for Russia?

E: Yep. I certainly don’t want them to fail; I want the Olympics to go well, because I love the Olympics, and also for the sake of all those athletes.  I’m just a little squeamish, perhaps.

M: Agreed. I don’t think anyone, except perhaps the most anti-Olympics folks on the fringe of society, want the games themselves to suffer. It’s just a different thing than, say, four years ago when our lovable neighbor to the north hosted the games.

C: I don’t think you’re alone, E, in feeling that part of what these particular games are about is the spectacle of Russia — the American caricature of Russia, Russia in all its wacky glory, equal parts impressive and absurd. There’s a reason why the photos of half-finished hotel rooms and stall-less bathrooms in Sochi have been received with more gleeful amusement than disgusted outrage, at least by the folks here at home. There’s a reason NBC chose to show the fifth snowflake ring failing to open, while the Russian broadcast replaced it with footage of the dress rehearsal, where it worked perfectly. (To me the telling part of that story is not that they doctored it, but that we didn’t.)

E: Huh.  Fascinating.  It’s certainly old Soviet style that they pretended not to have any faults.

C: As opposed to America? I feel like we’d have done the same if we were hosting.

M: You really think we would have scrubbed the broadcast and shown the rehearsal?

E: Not sure I agree that we’d have falsified it (for one thing, it’d be playing live), but I take your point about our coverage — I notice that our official hosts are being very nice about it all, but still, the bite is there.

C: There’s a reason, too, that the internet so quickly believed and spread the satirical “news,” from an Onion-like fake news site, that the man responsible for that glitch had supposedly been found dead. Americans are uncomfortable with Russia, so Sochi’s foibles are as relieving to American viewers as China’s overwhelming perfection at Beijing was unsettling.

M: I don’t know if it’s relieving, per se. I see it more like a sibling rivalry, where one sibling is enjoying the blunders of the other. Seeing them with egg on their face just confirms our thoughts that we are better.

C: I wouldn’t know anything about that kind of relationship. I always take the high road with my siblings.

M: So say we all!

E: One thing I can say for sure: Russia is no Canada.  The Vancouver games were stunning, but also warm and friendly.  I still haven’t forgotten the poetry slam element.

M: Or the indie rock band.

E: Canadians want you to know that they have manners; Russians apparently want you to find them intimidating.

M: Wait wait wait… did you see them singing Daft Punk?

C: We’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s dive into the details of the Opening Ceremony itself, shall we? I for one thought they were gorgeous, with only a few less-than-amazing moments. We began by flashing through the (Cyrillic) alphabet, accompanied by truly cool graphics — an ABC book of quintessentially Russian icons, from famous writers and artists to inventions, discoveries, and storybook characters. Then the main character, I suppose you’d call her — an eleven-year-old girl whose dream is the unifying theme of the Ceremony — appears and is hoisted into the sky, where she prances around fearlessly. This whole part was really cool.

E: Liza Temnikova (the actress playing Lubov) was amazing and has crazy good balance, but I found a few of those ABC claims pretty specious.  They listed a lot of ex-pats among their great achievements, like Marc Chagall, and things Russians were part of but not solely or even largely responsible for, like television.  I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of the show on my iPad looking stuff up, and I still can’t figure out how they’re taking responsibility for German-American Albert Einstein.

C: No, it wasn’t Einstein, it was Eisenstein — Sergei Eisenstein. He was an innovative director in the early years of film, and an important film critic and theorist as well. And while he did work in Hollywood for a while, Russia claiming him is quite legit.

E: Oh, thank you.  That’s an embarrassing mistake.  One I won’t cover up, because perhaps others made it too?

M: I didn’t know either. And he must look an awful lot like old Albert. Either way, I did feel the same as E for many of the items — it was like when the original Star Trek series had Chekov give Russia credit for every discovery or technological advancement known to man. Chagall was the stand out, but there were more that I can’t remember off the top of my head.

E: Ooh, nice reference, brother mine!  The technical aspects were largely very impressive. I liked the idea of the snowflakes opening into the Olympic rings and found the result gorgeous even if only 4 out of the 5 worked.

M: Fake stories of the guy responsible’s death aside, I felt bad for them with that. I don’t like to see anything like that happen.

C: No, me neither. That was a pity. It was also sort of an odd moment, because I had trouble at times telling what was real and what was a projection!

M: And at first I wasn’t sure what was happening, thus wasn’t sure if it was supposed to stay closed. Oh well.

E:  Definitely a bummer, but still beautiful.  I loved the troika — the mystical white horses pulling the sun — maybe more than any other single image, although I felt quite swept away by the whimsical onion domes, and the amazing dancers and acrobats that flitted around them.

M: Maybe I was on edge because of the snowflake mishap, but the middle horse’s head, which was sticking pretty much straight up, didn’t seemed like it might have been another mishap. Was that just me?

C: Totally not just you. I wondered the same.

M: Okay, good.

E: I did wonder if it was supposed to move more, but if it was a mishap, it surely wasn’t too terrible.

M: Definitely not 5th ring level, that’s for sure.

C: The march through Russian history was cool — only hampered, I thought, by having to rush over so much so quickly (and it some cases, tactfully).

M: I’m not sure “tactfully” would be the word I would use. Overall, it had the feel of the “NOTHING BAD HAPPENED!Family Guy bus tour in Germany.

E: And wait, were the early Russians toga-wearing seafarers?  That was rather fascinating to me; like I said, there was lots to look up.

M: Oh, I loved it. I’m a history buff, so seeing the origins of a people whose origins I’ve never really wonder about before was great. Though, I found some of it sketchy. For example, the broadcast kept saying that it was 1000 years of history, but like you said, it started with Greek-like seafarers wearing togas and rowing up either a river or the Black Sea. I always thought that Russia came out of the Slavs, and the people that lived on the great Asian Steppes, not from the Greeks. Like you said, lots to look up.

E: Definitely my favorite use of the magical imaging floor was Peter the Great’s pen and ink/woodcut ship.  Between the ocean itself and the way the sailors moved on image of the ship, I was captivated.

M: Oh, that was terrific.

C: It may not have had the impressive on-site mechanics of London’s visualization of the English landscape transformed by industry, but one thing this whole broadcast had for me, which Danny Boyle’s ceremony didn’t, was a consistency of tone — dreamlike and fantastical, in this case. Though it seems like that was actually a function of NBC’s judicious editing, given the things they left out of their broadcast — such as the Russian Interior Ministry Police Choir singing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (!!!) and whatever the heck this is.

E: Are you kidding?  That happened?  I don’t even have words for the freakiness that is watching men in those uniforms (the gold braid, the over-sized hats) sing a pick-up line disco ditty.

M: Especially the older men, some of who looked straight out of central casting, and less than pleased to be there!

E: Well, I do have some words: kitsch masterpiece.  Also, I HATE when we edit stuff out.  I mean, it’s not as offensive as editing out London’s tribute to terrorist attack victims, and from what I hear now it was a pre-show element, but it’s still lame.

C: Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about. More time for commercial breaks? But at such a cost… Admittedly, though, “Get Lucky” isn’t very family-friendly.

M: When Mrs M and I watched the Daft Punk song later we were both struck by just how much the world has changed. When we were growing up, even C, not only would the Russian POLICE not be performing a current(ish) pop song, but they wouldn’t have heard a non-Russian pop song that was less than 20+ years old. No matter how tight a grasp Putin tries to maintain, too much has seeped in for Russia to ever go back to what it was, and to what parts of China still are.

E: And they wouldn’t want to, much as the commentators insist there’s nostalgia for the Soviet era.  At any rate, you’re right, C — that’s not quite the child’s dream that much of the show was.  Obviously I was entranced by the Empire section of the program — the dancing scene from War & Peace, the costumes, the columns, the ballet.

C: Oohhh, I loved that section too. Gorgeous.

M: I’m no ballet aficionado, but that was beautiful.

C: Except the prima ballerina was way into scary-skinny territory. How does she dance without muscle mass?

M: I feel like this is the time to insert an old Yakov Smirnoff-style joke… “In Soviet Russia, ballerinas perform at Olympics before being allowed to eat.”

C: Not sure that had quite the brevity and punch his trademark gags were known for.

E: Speaking of Soviet Russia, I’m kind of impressed that they were able to present the Soviet years and the Empire years back to back, ashamed of neither, even if I could have done without the giant floating heads and the jarring music that marked the former.  It’s not like we could have expected them to skip over communism, after all.

M: No, but I’m not sure they’re not ashamed of either, given the way they skipped over things. I thought the way they did it was strange, especially for the 80 or so years of communist rule. They highlighted one 1950s-like city scene (which was probably from the late 70’s), and then had cartoon-y icons that floated in and out without any real connection to anything. Again, nothing bad happened!

C: Actually the “city scene” section reminded me of the Constructivist arts & design movement (sort of similar to Bauhaus), which was earlier in the 20th century. Nifty imagery, nodding to some iconic Communist style elements.

E: Yes, me too.  It all had a very cheery “look, modernization!” vibe.  But then our opening ceremonies don’t really get into slavery and the Trail of Tears, either.

M: Okay, I can see that. It was still an odd mix, with most of the era skipped. No Lenin, no Stalin (no surprise on the latter).

C: One bit that was cool, until it wasn’t, was the sequence where the icons of the various winter sports were turned into constellations (a play on Olympics/Olympian gods) that appeared to soar through the sky as they flashed in complex sequences across a dark, glimmering nightscape. I went from quite impressed to, I’m ashamed to admit, a bit bored, as the sequences repeated over and over and over.

E: Oh, I really agree.  The starlit figures were gorgeous, but that bit went on far too long.  Oh look, it’s the hockey players again!  Now the figure skaters!  Big Ben!  Parliament!  Had they lit it with more variety or kept moving the pieces, they might have been able to hold our attention longer.

M: I felt exactly the same.  At first I loved it. When they moved to flashing on them in order, and you could see things like a figure skater doing a jump, or a snow boarder performing a trick, it was fantastic. Then, 5 minutes later when they were still showing it, with increasingly loud and repetitive dramatic music, they needed to move on. Why didn’t NBC edit out some of that?

E: Heh.  Was anyone else bemused that with all the winter athletes they had to choose from, we only got two to carry the torch?

M: Nope, this time it’s just you. ‘Splain.

E: I get Maria Sharapova, because she’s from Sochi, but she and two of the other five torch bearers were summer athletes.  Five is a really small number to begin with, and then to unbalance them… it’s weird, especially when Russia has so many Winter Olympic champions to choose from.  And while the cauldron itself looks sleek and snazzy, the lighting really can’t compare to Beijing or Barcelona.  Even the mini-cauldrons of London were more interesting.

C: I liked it, but I thought it was funny that they made the last two run a really long stretch, after the others went practically no distance at all.

M: I agree, it seemed like a small number of torch bearers, like there was no clear path they were following, too, and the cauldron and its lighting seemed routine, which is never what you want viewers to come away thinking. They should have done something cool with the magic floor for the runners, and I don’t know what for the cauldron, but not that.

C: Yeesh, you guys are harsh critics of Olympic cauldrons!

M: Well, yes, but it’s the biggest iconic moment of any opening ceremony, and one of the biggest of the games themselves. Having it be pedestrian is just, well, disappointing.

E: Exactly.  They put so much thought and technological expertize into all the other elements of the program, and even into the placement of the cauldron.  Why not spice the lighting up a little more?

C: I still don’t agree that it was not interesting. I thought the spurting fire was cool.

E: Did it spurt?  I recall no spurting.

M: Yes, as it went it was like it was setting off little fireworks along the way. That was decent, but honestly I forgot that it even did that until C mentioned it. Again, not a good thing.

C: Your poor memory is somehow their fault?

M: No, but their lack of a memorable cauldron lighting is. So there.

E: Yes, I’ll admit we’re being tough.

M: I will say, I was actually a little heartened to see the final torch bearer (or co-bearer), Vladislav Tretiak. He’s best known in America as the Russian goalie in the Miracle on Ice game in 1980, thus would seem like an odd choice, as that’s one of Russia’s greatest Olympic disappointments. However, he was one of the greatest goalies of all time, so it was nice that they were able to acknowledge that and get past the one game. It was a “forgiving Bill Buckner” kind of moment to me, which is nice to see.

E: And great to see the amazing figure skater Irina Rodnina, too. (Of course I’m surprised we didn’t see Ekaterina Gordeeva, Evgeni Plushenko, Grishuk and Platov or the Protopopovs — the list of multiple medal winners goes on — but they clearly were not going for volume.)

C: Of course, there’s one last thing we have to mention before we close this conversation. The parade of nations. Specifically, the USA! USA! USA! sweaters. How do you guys vote: tacky like a bad Christmas sweater? or just different enough from every other country’s puffy down jackets to be fun? I must admit, they weirdly grew on me.

E: Oh, those were some bad Christmas sweaters, no question, but I suppose that makes them trendy as well as memorable?

M: I thought that from behind they were actually really nice, and I liked their hats. The front, though? Whoa. Waaaaaaaaaay too much going on. While we’re here, my favorite “so bad they’re good” outfits were the Lithuanians, with their neon lemon-lime outfits. Those were fun. Still, nothing in the entire parade of nations compares to the Norwegian Curling Team’s outfits. Those are priceless.

E: What was I saying before about kitsch masterpieces?  Because oh my lord.

4 comments on “Olympic Opening Ceremonies Review: Sochi ABCs

  1. MMGF says:

    In Soviet Rrrrussia, Olympic Games watch YOU!

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