A Night at the Olympics

Look, I hate sport, let’s get that clear. All forms of organized, competitive excercise exercise — a word I use so rarely I’ve literally forgotten how to spell it — are basically spectacles from the deepest, trident-jabbing bowels of Hell, somehow excreted up onto the earth’s surface by some repulsive subterranean eruption of fecal urgency.

“There’s the swimming,” suggests a friend. But I hate the swimming too. I don’t like the sounds it makes — echoing, splashing and yelling. If you close your eyes during the swimming, you will immediately picture yourself in Godard’s ALPHAVILLE, watching hi-tech executions. All sports either sound bad, look bad, are monumentally boring, are outbursts of vile nationalistic/territorial (or sectarian) aggression, or are just naff.

So I haven’t been looking forward to the Olympics. Still, they have a certain cinematic tradition (although I recommend the Ichikawa TOKYO OLYMPIAD far more highly that the Riefenstahl) — and I take seriously Richard Lester’s comments about the surge in filmmaking brio in Britain in the sixties being partly down to the high spirits occasioned by England’s winning the world cup. There can be a cultural crossover, just as winning the war led to a few years of dynamic, imaginative and confident cinema culminating in the glorious year of 1948.

Back when New Labour won the general election under Tony Blair, before we had to face what that actually meant, there seemed to be a similar upsurge in creative confidence, but it was manifested purely in the world of pop music. I mean, most of the lottery-subsidised cinema of the era was crap, as useless, pointless and confused as the Millennium Dome.

So whether the Olympics will do anything for Britain, apart from sucking money out of other areas, is something I’m a bit skeptical about. But still, grumbling is something we Brits do well, so I did decide to watch Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony, if only to moan at it.

There was plenty to moan at, and a certain amount to enjoy. Boyle’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach meant there was always plenty going on, even if the BBC camera teams couldn’t always find it. An opening countdown with numbered balloons bursting, went all random on us as the editing rendered it as SIX… FOUR… THREE… ONE… I’m not saying I could vision-mix a live event as complicated as this and do any better, or even as well. I’m just saying it didn’t work.

Likewise, the entrance of a thousand furiously drumming drummers in near silence was a strange choice, if it was a choice, although when the volume got tweaked they made a suitably big noise.

Niggles aside, what of the overall concept? At first it seemed like a bag of bits, a typically incoherent vision of what Britain is (cricket! suffragettes! Chelsea pensioners!), starting from an arbitrary historical point that had nothing to do with the timeline of the Olympics (which might have added some rational structure). I can’t see why, if you’re chucking in a nod to both world wars, James Bond, Mr Bean, the Queen (with corgis rendered digitally jittery like the victims of Rage in 28 DAYS LATER) and a statue of WInston Churchill that comes to life, like Kali in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, you can’t also have Robin Hood and King Arthur. But you can, it seems, have Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel reciting a speech from The Tempest. For no reason.

Ken was actually a good choice for this kind of thing, though. He’s not one of those actors who can look as if he’s not acting, but if the occasion demands it he can, like Tod Slaughter, look like he’s acting his socks off and enjoying every minute of it.

And the bit where all the curious industrial revolution imagery (an event which falls in between the original Greek Olympics and the event’s modern revival) paid off with the big glowing rings forged in the furnaces of Hell the industrial revolution rising into the air was colourful and striking. And the cutaways of Boyle’s non-professional performers looking up at it with genuine, if perhaps unnameable, emotion, were oddly powerful.

Boyle’s problem is he can’t simplify, I’d say. Which is why his Mr Bean skit was over-edited and merely gestured towards laughs it hadn’t a hope of getting, and why there was always so much going on. It would have been a relief for all the activity to stop more often and allow us to FOCUS.

Still, muddled, busy, tacky and bloated as it was, the spectacle was oddly pleasing. Or not too infuriating, anyway. I can now retreat to a darkened room and watch movies until the whole nasty affair is over.

18 Responses to “A Night at the Olympics”

  1. Spare a thought for the UK team in their ultra-bling white-and-gold uniforms – which made them look like an S Club 7 tribute band!!


  2. So nothing about the central message of the ceremony? I can’t agree. The absence of simplicity was surely the point! And I think the choice of Shakespeare was inspired, smart and heartbreakingly apt. This article nails why:
    Also while the Atkinson dragged, the initial reveal was expertly delivered, same with the actual Queen.
    Pretty much everyone I know is still on a high from this.
    P.S. I think the surge in British pop started well before Blair, didn’t it? I’m not sure what you have in mind but Pulp, Blur, Oasis, Spice Girls was all mid-90s.

  3. Remember, Rowan Atkinson isn’t only known internationally for Mr Bean, but also for Johnny English. I think this was a self-mocking tip at the Bond sketch.

  4. Atkinson at the keyboard seemed like Johnny English, doing the Chariots of Fire bit (edited by Boyle and his team, rather than the TV broadcaster) seemed more like Bean. I guess because the character was mute throughout, Bean seems more like the reference.

    The Tempest line is apt — if you ignore the context and simply look to see how you can distort it to fit your message, which isn’t really the best use of quotation.

    I should give him credit for honouring dissenters, though, that was a nice touch.

    You’re right re Britpop, of course. In a sense, it set the exuberant tone for the Labour win, so my ahistorical mind folds together cause and effect into a big nostalgic bundle, like some oaf on a TV clip show.

  5. RIP indeed. The reason my picture is of our late cat.

  6. Every fabulous screen grab on this blog “ignores the context”, doesn’t it? Heck, half your work here is about removing stuff from its context. I’m stunned you’re suggesting now that this is doing something a disservice.

  7. I usually try to EVOKE the context when I sample something. Unless it’s a joke by grabbing a suggestive frame or the like. You can quote without distorting the meaning. The trouble with that quote is it uses the words and ignores, not so much the context as the MEANING. And it’s not as if there isn’t plenty of Shakespeare that’s actually about his homeland.

  8. Again, how is that “the trouble”? How is it “distortion”? Sampling is hardly a new idea! By taking that line and applying it to Britain, something smart and beautiful was done. And the context, by the way, is a demonized worker contemplating how music lifts his spirits. Knowing that for me only makes the line even richer.

  9. David E – The Leni Riefenstahl comparison is cheeky but very apt.

    A recent Observer column described London during the Olympics as “a military junta run by Ronald McDonald”. I’ve just come back from a 4-day visit and YES, it’s totally spot-on!

  10. judydean Says:

    I was delighted to hear Tessa Jowell on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning congratulate JIMMY Boyle on his opening ceremony. Now that would have been an event worth witnessing!

  11. Off-Topic (sort of, cause The Koumiko Mystery was made during the Olympics in 1965 in Japan) Latest FaBlog: Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve AKA Chris Marker

  12. I don’t think it could have been ’65. Olympics seem to be held in even-numbered years.

    “And the context, by the way, is a demonized worker contemplating how music lifts his spirits. Knowing that for me only makes the line even richer.” Yes, but the line is given to Brunel!

    I’d like to have seen what Ken Campbell would have done on a scale like this.

  13. True. Is it relevant that it was originally meant to have been Mark “Rooster from Jeruslam” Rylance saying this?
    David W, yes London has been a very depressing place. But I think Friday changed that. Of course it’s very probable that’s a local buzz.

  14. As ever, it takes the commander of the doomed colony in Aliens to don a dress and sort everything out:

  15. HOLY POOP! Losing that colony then Red Dwarf straight after clearly hasn’t dampened his spirits. Fab.

  16. He’s a failure on space but a frackin’ hero down here on Planet World.

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