Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Media pigs

I have mixed feeling about the Olympics.  On one hand you see these really quite noble sentiments demonstrated by some of the world's most talented young people showing that years of intense preparation will lead to wonderful accomplishments.  On the other hand, Olympics sports are basically chosen for their proximity to war skills.  According to Veblen, one of the approved Leisure Class occupations is sport.  Being a Leisure Class activity, the Olympics must display copious amounts of conspicuous waste.  And nothing is more wasteful than the opening ceremony—this year's supposedly cost $42 million.

I missed the opening ceremony this time for good reasons, but I did not miss the controversy.  Of course, this being an NBC production, we were graced with the presence of the execrable Bob Costas—a man guaranteed to say something offensive about every other country on planet earth.  But the normal mindless chauvinism was topped this time by NBC's decision to drop coverage of a tribute to the victims of a London bombing that happened the day after they were awarded the games—only to replace it with a Ryan Seacrest interview of Michael Phelps.

The tribute was a lovely rendition of one of the most popular hymns in all of Christendom "Abide With Me."  (See it here)  In England where almost no one goes to church any longer, this hymn has become associated with sporting events.  Even so, it has been sung at millions of funerals.  In short, it was a perfect choice for a tribute to the dead.  I happen to love it—it was one of the first hymns that I learned to sing the bass part.

Olympics opening ceremony: US media reacts to 'peculiar' British festival
Danny Boyle's eccentric British history lesson received mostly glowing reviews, but many were puzzled over in-jokes like NHS

Paul Harris in New York
guardian.co.uk, 28 July 2012

With its colourful and stunning melange of the bizarre and unexpected,Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony was bound to provoke a few puzzled looks from across the Atlantic.

When you mix an eccentric British history lesson about the Industrial Revolution with a tribute to the National Health Service and throw in Mr Bean, a parachuting monarch and a horde of Mary Poppinses, then virtually the only guarantee is that some people won't get it.

That seemed to be true of the reaction of the American press, which digested Boyle's spectacle a good deal later than the rest of the world after network NBC refused to show it live, preferring instead a delayed and edited broadcast.

Some American critics loved it and others found it bizarre and hard to understand.

In the first camp was the New York Times' writer Sarah Lyall who was so ecstatic about the show that it believed it had solved – sort of – the great problem of Britain's post-Imperial place in the world.

A wild jumble of the celebratory and the fanciful; the conventional and the eccentric; and the frankly off-the-wall, Britain presented itself to the world Friday night as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is.

New Yorker writer Lauren Collins also got in on the love for all things British.

"Danny Boyle wins the gold" was the headline on her piece. "The unspoken message was that Britain was an old country, a proud country – and a very different country from China.

"Boyle's living diorama, as specifically-drawn a world as Middle Earth or Pandora, was the opposite of Beijing's vague corporate bombast.

"You could hear the sound of a horse's hooves clopping; of balloons being pricked, in the countdown to the start of the ceremony, a rebuke to the silent grandiosity of lights and lasers," she wrote, clearly favouring Britain's efforts over those of 2008 in China.

But not everyone gave Boyle's sprawling tableaux such a thumbs-up as the left-leaning bibles of America's chattering classes.

In the pages of USA Today – a middle-of-the-ground more mass market newspaper – writer Robert Bianco obviously struggled with some of the performance.

It was delightful at times, to be sure. But just as often, it was trying so hard to create magic and impart meaning that it became impenetrable. The Queen parachuting into the stadium as a Bond girl? Fun. Rowen Atkinson destroying Chariots of Fire? Peculiar, but fun.

The flying bicycle dove? Also fun, even if it did look more like a flying monkey. But the dancing sick-kids salute to the National Health Service, complete with a Mary Poppins air raid and a giant Franken-baby? Much less fun, and more than a bit bizarre.

TV show host Matt Lauer certainly agreed about that large baby. "I don't know whether that's cute or creepy," he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a country where healthcare reform is so controversial, it was the high-profile presence of the NHS that stunned many American writers.

After all, the idea of state-control of healthcare is demonised as "socialised medicine" with scare stories of "death panels" touted by top – usually Republican – political leaders.

Certainly the US equivalent, which would be dancing health insurance corporate executives, was hard to imagine.

"For the life of me, though, am still baffled by NHS tribute at opening ceremonies. Like a tribute to United Health Care or something in US,"tweeted clearly confused Los Angeles Times sports writer Diane Pucin. more
Sportswriters are often excellent.  Here Alex Wolff of Sports Illustrated shows that SOME Yanks actually understood what the Brits were trying to accomplish with their opening ceremony.

Opening ceremony a celebration -- of protest and dissent

No one was sure if this year's opening ceremony could match Beijing's lavish event.  With his music choices, producer Danny Boyle cleverly honored protest and dissent.

Somewhere amidst the traumatized pasture animals; and Mr. Bean's reenactment of Chariots of Fire on the beach; and the parachute jumps of James Bond and the Queen from a helicopter; and the joint lighting of the cauldron by seven young British athletes, each chosen by a former Olympic great -- somewhere, that is to say, between Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins' ringing of the Olympic Bell and the echo of Paul McCartney's final note of Hey Jude -- artistic director Danny Boyle smuggled into the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics a worthy and important thing.

He gave us a chance to celebrate protest and dissent.

Four years ago, after a comparable night on the other side of the globe, the rest of the world had a moment of collective sadness for the London organizers. No way could the stagers of the next Olympics possibly equal Beijing's lid-lifting spectacle. But tonight we learned that if the guy in front of you zigs, it's best to zag. Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, spent almost four times less money and deployed roughly one-tenth as many people. But he outstripped the previous Olympic host city by flaunting what the Chinese actively suppressed.
This was pageantry as jiu-jitsu. While Britain's coalition government weighs further cuts to its government-run health-care system, Boyle went out of his way to honor the National Health Service, with real NHS employees as nurses capering on hospital beds.

The show also included a nod to the early-20th-century suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and the Jarrow Marchers, who in 1936 walked more than 300 miles from County Durham to London to protest hunger and joblessness. When Boyle made a point of inviting their descendants to the proceedings, he also made a point to us.  more

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