Spectacularly British

The Olympics opening ceremony didn't make sense, but who needs that when you have a giant Voldemort puppet?

Topics: Olympics, 2012 Summer Olympics,

As a spectacle, it would be hard to ask for much more from last night’s Opening Ceremony. Unless coherence is something that you’re interested in. But coherence is a lot to ask from any multi-hour extravaganza that encompasses the queen jumping out of an airplane with James Bond, a sooty, grimy, threatening vision of the Industrial Revolution, and dozens of huge, Sid Vicious puppets bopping around like deranged bobble-head toys. As overseen and created by film director Danny Boyle, the man who made “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Trainspotting,” the ceremonies felt very much the work of a film director, not only for the countless movie references peppered throughout— a long “Chariots of Fire” homage, a line from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” being blasted to the stadium, the horde of Julie Andrews-esque Mary Poppins descending from the sky, the (maybe unintentional) shout-out to the “Avatar” tree — but for the extent to which it was organized around a number of visually sumptuous, blockbuster images. You could cut this thing down into a great trailer.

What, exactly, would that trailer say about England? Something schizophrenic and cheeky and somber, sometimes playful and sometimes surprisingly sober, accompanied by a great soundtrack, as anything that includes smokestacks shuddering up into the sky, glowing Olympic rings descending from them, a giant, menacing Voldemort puppet, David Beckham on a speedboat, children in pastels jumping up and down on beds lit up like glow worms, and hundreds of Freddie Mercury doppelgangers is wont to be.

The show began in pastoral, bucolic England, where sheep were on the grass, clouds were in the sky, and Brits, apparently, used to look like refugees from the Shire or Panem. I thought for a few minutes that someone might get on the mic and shout “Welcome to 30thannual Hunger Games!” but instead Kenneth Branagh, looking like Abraham Lincoln’s brother, performed some Shakespeare. (Respect to all the translators who had to contend with “Afeared” and “Twangling” so early in the proceedings.) The camera often cut back to Branagh after his recital and he always looked almost derangedly content, arm akimbo, master of all he surveyed and helping to make sense of the scale of the immense goings on. The wide shots of the stadium often seemed insanely busy — how to see all the yellow submarines and suffragettes and guys in Beatles costumes at once?!— and yet in all that busy-ness, there were hundreds of people like Branagh, acting their hearts out, even as the camera alighted on them for just a minute.

Pastoral England only got to open the show; it was soon destroyed by the forces of the Industrial Revolution, with hordes of grimy workers ripping up the sod, a huge tree being pulled from the earth a la “Avatar,” and six huge smokestacks emerging from the ground. It’s hard for me to imagine this extremely Hephaestian vision of progress — dirty, glowering, pounding and reportedly accompanied by sulfurous smells — being included in an American version of an opening ceremony (we would have spic and span assembly lines and shiny Model-Ts), but then it is even harder for me to imagine America spending millions of dollars to assemble an extended homage to our national healthcare system. (Boyle’s vision was apparently too dark for NBC, which opted to skip over the segment memorializing the 7/7 victims and replace it with a Ryan Seacrest-Michael Phelps interview.) While I wonder if the National Health Service segment of the ceremonies, featuring nurses dancing around, kids jumping up on trampoline beds, and the NHS’ name spelled out in huge lights, was perhaps a little bit of a nudge in America’s ribs, I do so hope that in the not so distant future, we will love our access to affordable healthcare so much we will demonstrate it by welcoming a giant, creepy, too smooth-featured, baby puppet-thing into a huge stadium full of people, as the Brits did last night.

The most head-scratching part of the evening was the Internet theme that wound through the musical montage. As we sped through pop music — the Beatles, Stones, Eurythmics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood — two young people (both black, it was clear Boyle made a concerted effort to be as diverse as possible) kept texting and talking, trying to meet up to return a lost phone. Whenever the content of their digital exchanges was laid over the screen, we suddenly seemed not to be watching the Olympics, but an AT&T commercial. Turns out all of this was to celebrate Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the “World Wide Web” (in the British telecast, they made sure never to say Internet, lest they get into Al Gore territory).

Texting and the Internet don’t strike me as being exclusively or even particularly British, and neither did much of the second half of the ceremony: The “Chariots of Fire” theme song was written by a Greek man, after all (though I did like that Mr. Bean bit). Shakespeare sure is British, but Baz Luhrman’s version of “Romeo & Juliet,” the one with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio that flickered on-screen last night, is surely an Australian-American-British production, if not, were you to crunch its credits, an even less nationalized one. The music, movie, TV and Internet segments were bouncy and energetic, but they also felt extremely globalized, the sort of thing that could appear in any (really psychedelic, big budgeted) awards show.  Even the James Bond and the queen segment, while totally mesmerizing for the queen’s game-ness and Daniel Craig’s ability to rock a tux (and for Meredith Vieira calling it the “money shot” on NBC), seemed like it could have been an MTV Movie Awards sketch. Give me a choir of deaf and hearing children in their pajamas singing “God Save the Queen” to the queen any day. Or more of those Mary Poppins.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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