My, That IS a Show

Embracing London’s Ceremony

Lord of the RingsI should start by saying, I don’t know Danny Boyle’s work. Heretic that I am, I haven’t gotten around to seeing his movies Trainspotting (1996) or Slumdog Millionaire (2008) yet, though the first is on this summer’s list. So I have no real sense of who he is or what he has done, and thus I approached London’s gala opening with no expectations of him.

Nor was I making “the comparison” that every news reporter seemed drawn to – usually with the disclaimer “We mustn’t compare this to Beijing,” which leads us instantly to conjure up the 2008 Olympics from our memory banks, where it has lain as dormant as many of the seats in the Bird’s Nest. I am well aware that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland do not have a combined population of 1.3 billion, nor a cultural history that encompasses scroll calligraphy, a unique form of opera, the Great Wall, the Silk Road, and 308 emperors going back to 2000 B.C.E. And to try to control the rainfall would be, well, un-British.

Finally, I was in fact working through the ceremony, so I didn’t sit riveted to the television or discuss its features with friends, as intended. It got my attention for large segments, but there were times when I forgot to turn around from the PC and restore the sound (blocked at each commercial break, of course) until NBC had already resumed coverage.

I really don’t think that last one made much of a difference, though. I think the ADD sensation comes more from the fact that it’s been eight years since I was in the United Kingdom, and those years have seen a technological surge that makes most days feel scattered.

My initial confrontation with the ceremony prompted a reaction I occasionally have had to select abstract dance works, which can be summarized by the word “Huh?” I don’t think this is an incorrect response. While what an artist explores may fail to become tangible and miss conveying emotion, concept, and direction, the viewer also may not be attuned to the context of what she is seeing. It can be very confusing when the artist includes not only the kitchen sink but also the lawnmower and a bowl of fruit in the mix. The question becomes where to focus – or whether it’s “right” to focus at all.

Such anxiety over “what is right” seems to underlie media response to the ceremonies. The NBC broadcasters, struggling to deliver an unrelievedly cheery narrative throughout, apparently hit an impasse with a danced tribute to the victims of the July 7, 2005 terror attacks in London; they dodged it and substituted an athlete interview instead, leaving their audience with the audiovisual cacophony of the “Frankie and June” story to precede the athletes’ parade. The network also clearly struggled with Tim Berners-Lee’s message about his creation, the World Wide Web: “This is for everyone.” Commentators promptly qualified that the Web was for those who wouldn’t “abuse it.” (Hmm … dears, I don’t think that was what the man said.)

Like the U.S. media, the British press have shown a great need to locate meaning in the performance – especially contemporary political meaning. Hence, I have read praise from the left that it was clearly meant as a “Labour Party broadcast,” chronicling the ambiguous character of class-creating industrialization, culminating in the achievements of nationalized healthcare and social inclusiveness via technology. The right in England, for its part, seemed to agree, tweeting that the performance highlighted Labour’s “nationalised stranglehold” on the country (or that it was “multicultural crap,” a tweet delivered by a Conservative politician who, one hopes, is on his way to a new career in a paper hat and latex gloves).

I remember this sort of analysis well from my M.A. days in England; and heaven knows, the politics may be a conscious infusion, if a little esoteric for non-Brits, and especially Americans. (Despite our right wing’s painfully untutored assertions, U.S. universities don’t come close to the type of thorough-going economic-political analysis I encountered doing my degree during the Thatcher-Major years.) Certainly, as I watched the one molten circle rise from the stadium’s center – amid sulphurous industrial smokestacks that had displaced the green and pleasant sod of agrarian England – to meet four other circles flying inward and to link with them in the Olympic emblem, I thought I sensed echoes of (British writer) J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “Scouring of the Shire,” and the words of Isildur ran through my head:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

But then, too, I have been rather preoccupied by the science fiction/fantasy aspects of these games, with their brand totalitarianism and Call of Duty security set-up. (I’m not the only one to find a dash of Tolkien, either. Run “Lord of the Rings” and “Opening Ceremony” through a search engine and see what you get.) And I rather think Britain Under Austerity is as caught up as the election-year United States in partisan political readings of everything under the sun.

Interpretative Clouds

That was always my problem with literary theory: I never quite bought the egotistical “death of the author” and pure reader-response theory approaches that reduced an object under scrutiny to “whatever you want it to be.” (Authors rarely like this interpretation. I’ve learned from dance, however, that at times it may be the best way through.) While these interpretative strategies supposedly free the reader from the strictures of “the canon” and monolithic interpretation, in academia they take on a hugely competitive quality of their own – not unlike that played out among Lucy, Linus, and Charlie Brown in the Peanuts comic strip, as they lie on the hill seeing amazing images in clouds. (Theologians love this one, so the particular strip is easiest to track down in The Gospel According to Peanuts.)

Confronted with the “Huh?” of Boyle’s performance, I was – like Charlie Brown – “going to say a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”

So I ask the author.

And Boyle sounds very familiar to me, in the Globe and Mail piece about him:

I did it because I’ve never done anything like this before. You want to keep testing yourself. … We have no agenda other than [to say] actually something that was true, values that we feel are true. There’s no bull in it.

Maybe that’s why we find Boyle’s Opening Ceremony so confusing. It’s like your first taste of food that hasn’t been salted into a state of near-permanent preservation: you’re not sure what to make of it. What should it taste like? What do you do if the chef doesn’t know?

So while AFP soberly assesses that it “grapples with weighty issues,” The Guardian‘s Marina Hyde finds it “hilariously bonkers” and marvels that a nation which puts on such a show “is allowed nuclear weapons.” A U.S. economic reporter from Slate reduces it to market terms he can understand and declares that “China will bury the West,” while the New York Times‘s Sarah Lyall proclaims it a “slightly insane portrait of a country that has changed almost beyond measure” since it last hosted the Olympics. A South African political activist tweets that non-Brits need “to have taken a hallucinogen before watching” to understand it, and a Saudi commentator finds himself thankful for the Twitter feed to interpret it.

“Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,” says Shakespeare’s Caliban. …

For my part, I feel the attachment and even tenderness for the country came through, even if I am out of alignment in such an absence of “message.” Many points I enjoyed – the vast recruitment of volunteer performers, and their obvious dedication to their roles; the highlighting of children’s literature and the National Health Service; Rowan Atkinson’s deeply human, self-deprecating humor; the amusing James Bond entry sequence for the Queen; the singular awareness that some of the most critical “creators” are largely unnoticed in a celebrity-driven media environment.

If the larger symbolic moments and celebrations of pop culture didn’t work for me – ah, well. When I wrinkle my brow and say, “Well, that was … special” – to borrow a friend’s reaction to the Norwegian film TrollhunterI recall a moment later, that singular film made perfect sense to me.

For any who struggle with the “what did I just see?” of the Opening Ceremony, I recommend the all-purpose exclamation of appreciation that was adopted by a minister-friend of my father, when confronted with the loving, proud, beaming parents of an infant he found significantly peculiar-looking: “My, that is a baby.”

My, that is a show.