The Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies are a giant version of what is expected of every hostess at the beginning and ending of an entertainment: welcome guests graciously and introduce them to your family; send them away with thanks for coming and encouragement to return (no matter how much of a mess they made). Danny Boyle got this all wrong at the opening ceremony and it makes us worry about what’s coming up to conclude the London games.
Successful opening ceremonies encapsulate a city’s or country’s history and traditions in engaging, inspiring and delightful ways. Recently we’ve witnessed the stunning bombastic cultural power of China and the more subtle folkways of Australia (even a few mea culpas offered to the aboriginals for good measure in the latter). The London ceremony had some lovely pieces–the flumes running with molten metal, the elevated rings dripping with fire, the confetti-filled exploding balloons, the wonderful building-up of the cauldron, the amazing bit with the Queen–all of that was really great. But the majority of the show was colored–drably– by Danny Boyle’s determination to tell a specific story–and a story indeed it is, since his history lesson was significantly edited from a particular point of view which presented a strange mix of Britain’s achievements, ignored some of its greatest moments and figures, verged on the uncomplimentary, and sometimes just got things wrong, even within his narrow frame of reference.
First, there was the promise that this was about the “Isles of Wonder,” as if to say hey, we know there’s more to this bit of the world than London or even England. Except that after a few truly lovely children’s choirs in those other places, it was all about London–even when it really wasn’t. That whole Industrial Revolution thing? Yeah, that started a couple of hundred miles away in places like Manchester and Birmingham. But no matter; who would want to claim to be the site of that portrayal? The fields of green were literally rolled up to make room for the menacing smokestacks, making what must be the most intentionally ugly opening ceremonies ever. Indeed, whenever a choice was available, between ugly and lovely, trite and profound, scary and inspiring, the former almost always won. A salute to children’s literature? Great! But why is it the villains who rise up to frighten the armies of bedridden kids in the arena? Yes, the Poppins patrol saved the day, but really. Four hours long and with 7,500 participants, and there still wasn’t room for Pooh and his pals?
Although a most welcome focus, the literary aspect of the show was generally puzzling. Of all Britain’s achievements, this is perhaps one place that it shines most brightly. (Although we wonder how the centuries of achievement in art and architecture was ignored except for a brief and easy-to-miss shout-out to John Nash, of all people.) We thrilled at J. K. Rowling reading lines from Peter Pan, and wish there had been more of that. Likewise, the image of engineer Brunel reading bits of The Tempest? Sign us up! But sadly, the noises that filled the arena did make us afeard. Further, it is a sad commentary on Brit lit that in the course of one big fat spectacle we fell from Kenneth Branagh reciting Shakespeare to Hugh Grant stuttering over a David Cassidy lyric.
The latter, of course, was part of the Top of the Pops hour, which turned the ceremony into a variety show celebrating pop music and social media. Usually this kind of frothy entertainment is the realm of the closing ceremony in which it’s expected that everyone let down their hair a bit, but that started earlier this year, again suggesting to our eyes and ears that the Great Britain is maybe not so great anymore. Sure that Beatles song is popular, but in the great scheme of things, a song that has as its most memorable lyric na, na na nanana naa, na na na naa, simply does not compare with the place where we started the night with William Blake:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
Oh if only Mr. Boyle had imbibed Blake’s wisdom (not to mention the beauty of his paintings) and focused on that “green & pleasant Land” rather than somehow mistaking the “dark Satanic Mills” as rock-n-roll history for the masses. It’s possible that the low-brow approach was the director’s attempt to democratize the proceedings, at best to show the sometimes-scrappy, but generally-vibrant, quality of popular culture in a free country as opposed to the truly awesome display put on by the communist regime in 2008. But England has a long history of intertwining the high and low, and ignoring that fact excludes some of the great accomplishments as well as removes the context essential to fully appreciating the glory and wit of the vernacular. Unfortunately, the London ceremony did not make democracy look very good, nor was the very white, and very male, ceremony a very accurate view of the host city, the capital of a country where curry has taken the place of steak pie as the national dish.
The misguidedness of the display as well as its general lax attitude makes us wonder how much more casual and banal Mr. Boyle could go for the closing ceremonies. We predict: Dame Edna (yes we know she’s Australian but wasn’t that one of the “Isles of Wonder” once upon a time?) popping out of a giant Yorkshire pudding, followed by five hours of Spice Girls karaoke (featuring Ryan Lochte and his glittery grill, please). Finally a Benny Hill impersonator will extinguish the cauldron with a spray from a seltzer bottle and we’ll call it a day. Please at least cast Simon Pegg as Benny Hill and play The Jam in the background so we have something to look forward to.