I was going to do a protracted rant about something else yesterday, but I got sidetracked by the Olympic opening ceremony which I haven’t really watched with any enthusiasm in years. There is only so much of the “And here are our cutest children wearing costumes, carrying flowers, spinning ribbons and releasing balloons while doing ethnic dances” I can take in a lifetime. I hoped Danny Boyle could ring some interesting changes on the whole big, gaudy spectacle but I wasn’t holding my breath.
Well by god, Danny Boyle gets my vote for the best opening ceremony in… ever. Yeah it was still a big, gaudy spectacle with moments of real goofiness (Mr. Bean makes me ridiculously and pointlessly embarrassed, much as I love Rowan Atkinson.) But underneath it all — and no matter what Mr. Boyle says publicly — there was a core of pure liberal joy that made me want to get up and dance.
Now I confess the bucolic opening kind of put me off. Yeah, green and pleasant land and all, but singing “Hey nonny” on the greensward was not an Olympic event last time I looked. After a bit of pastoral fol-de-rol, the Industrial Revolution chugged onto the scene with frock-coated industrialists smugly supervising the uglification of that pretty landscape, huge, ugly smokestacks, and smudged workers who didn’t so much cavort as trudge. The commentators on NBC cheerfully told their viewers that this was a tribute to the industrialization that made Britain great, as clouds of sulfur-scented smoke wafted out of the chimneys and into the stands. Ken Branagh recited Caliban’s “Be not afeared” speech from “The Tempest” and those frock-coated capitalists did a little dance as their money piled up. I said to Glinda that it seemed odd to me to be celebrating the kind of industry that will eventually put all of the UK under water. I still wasn’t quite getting it, though later as I reflected on the forging of one of the five Olympic rings, the symbolism pretty much hit me over the head with one of those hammers.
And then things got really strange. There was a tribute to the National Health Service which is so maligned by the right wing in this country. “Oh no,” they say “It’s horrible. They hate it in England!” Well right there in front of God and everybody, the commentators read their notes which explained how beloved the NHS is in England. And I whooped and shouted “Suck that, tea baggers!” Poor Glinda, who had gone out to the kitchen for a moment said “What the hell is happening?”
Then there was a children’s nightmare sequence which was an odd sort of tribute to children’s literature, when you think about it, and the children were rescued from their night time horrors by a whole platoon of Mary Poppinses. (Possibly a spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down.) It all ended with a gigantic baby about which I agreed with the commentator who said he found it kind of creepy.
The Frankie and June segment was a good-humored, and relentlessly multi-racial, tech love story. I particularly liked that the kids who really represented the face of the new generation were mixed-race. The commentators talked about how charismatic they were,
and they were charming, but what I saw first was dark skin. And it was pleasing in my eyes, as was the video montage that followed Frankie and June’s first kiss which included a lesbian kiss and made me yell “GIRLKISSING!” and then, as the montage ended: “WHERE’S THE BOYKISSING?” You can’t ask for everything, I guess. It was a damn inspiring moment. And then, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web appeared, and tapped out this message for the world: “This is for everyone.” Again, suck that everyone who wants to censor and control the internet! It’s for everyone; Sir Tim says so and he invented it.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the sheer goofiness and good humor of H.M. parachuting out of a helicopter over the stadium, accompanied by James Bond. You want to talk indelible images? That’s the one people will be talking about for years. (And it was not lost on me that Daniel Craig is hot like burning, and believe me when I tell you I would hit that like the fist of an angry god if he gave me half a chance.)
I loved the rock and roll because British rock changed popular music several times over. I got a bit misty as I watched the torch being carried along the Thames in a motorboat piloted by David Beckham, and I cried when the Olympic flag was brought to Muhammed Ali .
I am not unaware that while rock is both the music of the people and of youth, punk and rap, which was prominently featured in the show, is the music of the disaffected and disenfranchised and I don’t think that its inclusion was an accident. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that the torch was carried in accompanied by an honor guard comprised of 500 of the workers who actually built the Olympic stadium, or that the people who carried the Olympic flag into the stadium were:
- Ban Ki-moon – Secretary General of the United Nations: “I am determined to see this Organization deliver tangible, meaningful results that advance peace, development and human rights.”
- Haile Geburselassie – Arguably the greatest distance runner of all time and a mentor to young athletes.
- Shami Chakrabati – Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and the director, since September 2003, of the Britishcivil liberties advocacy organisation, Liberty.
- Sally Becker – Known as the Angel of Mostar who risked her life to deliver aid and evacuate children in the Balkan War
- Marina Silva – Environmental activist and winner of the Goldman Prize, the world’s largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalists.
- Leymah Gbowee – A Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work to end the Liberian civil war.
- Daniel Barenboim – Israeli-Argentine-born conductor and pianist, tireless worker for human rights and vocal critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. He brought the music of Wagner back to Israel.
- Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man who was murdered in a racist attack by a gang of white men who were never convicted of the crime.