Sunday, 29 July 2012

The wobbly Olympic scenery

The London Olympics opening ceremony
My wife and I stayed up late on Friday night to see on TV the opening of the Olympic Games 2012 in London. I'm not an enthusiast of these kinds of occasions, but I do think such large-scale spectacles can be culturally revelatory, and I was looking forward to seeing how Great Britain would find itself portrayed by the director of the ceremony, the film maker Danny Boyle.

Several things stick with me, as I discussed with some friends on a Facebook thread yesterday (yes, I do that!). First, as one friend observed, amidst the portrayal of Britain as a once green and pastoral land of village cricket and agriculture which disappeared in the shadow of industrial might, there was not one mention of God (apart from the occasional hymn and the national anthem) and certainly no symbolism concerning the role of the Church in our island's story. Someone flippantly remarked that there was nothing for bikers either, but, as another answered, bikers have no significant role in Britain's historical and social genesis. Christianity does! And like it or not, so does the person of Jesus Christ. But no, these were airbrushed out of the picture here: this was a representation of Britain but a selective one, and the omissions were as significant as the inclusions. At one moment in the unfolding drama, a young girl and boy kissed, and behind them on a screen flashed a rapid series of images which included heterosexual couples, homosexual couples and a man kissing an ape. Xenophilia makes its public entry into British life! The inclusions are significant, just like the omissions.

The spectacle meandered onwards (view it on the BBC iPlayer if you are in the UK). After the depiction of the arrival of the industrial revolution, we saw one of the Olymmpic rings being forged (for as we know, the Olympics were inspired by bloodsucking factory owners who thought the working masses needed a little diversion ... weren't they?) and then lifted up on high to form part of the Olympic symbol. A new section narrated a couple of teenagers leaving a house filled with TV-watching adults and going out for the evening. Since one of them dropped her phone, they were chased by a group of boys through four decades of pop music (with accompanying dancing) until the boys caught up with them to return the phone, and we saw the moment of the kiss described above. The original house finally lifted up in the air to reveal Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world-wide web, typing at a desk. 

How all very modern Britain! Boyle's picture told us and the world about ourselves: we have a bucolic and industrial past, and we've swapped it for a suburban and consumption-shaped present, our principal consumable being that of mediatised entertainment. Heck, the crowd in the Olympic stadium were even part of the show!  

But, as I also said to our pro-biker friend, if this spectacle represents who were are in the sense of our national identity, we've become an existentialist nation: we are what we do. We are no longer a land aspiring for anything so naff as ideals or values to be striven for. We have nothing to offer except our sense of humour in a vacuum and our funky music (which is yours at a price). I've called this existentialist, but that's probably an insult to existentialists. At least existentialists are looking to affirm something by their doing. This spectacle showed us affirming almost nothing except ourselves (apart from a short section praising the National Health Service): how funny we are, how individual we are, how many well-known cultural references we can make (Harry Potter, James Bond, Mr Bean, Sir Simon Rattle). It was a procession of postmodern variability, spread thick with high-tech razzamatazz.  

The Rio Carnival
Of course, the next day almost nobody in Britain dared say a word against the show, or analyse its implications too much. We all had to say how wonderful it had been, how game the Queen had been for playing along with the James Bond charade (true enough), how generous the volunteers had been with their time. This was not the moment for raining on the British parade. A new mood took over in fact. Looking forward to the Rio Olympics, some commentators dared Brazil to match London's spectacle. Many wise heads nodded, seeming to imply that the Brazilians would struggle (naturally) to do half as well as the British had done. As if Rio were not the home of the carnival in the first place ... 

So, another friend said, you didn't enjoy it? Well, actually, I laughed out loud in places. And as a spectacle, it was amazing. But it was empty, as empty as our postmodern, consumerist search for who were are. Some of the foreign press picked up on this, wondering if Britain knew what it now was in a postcolonial age. That was a nice way of saying that much of what we saw in the Danny Boyle spectacle was not plausible. A nation's identity does not hang on what its youngsters do on a Saturday night, or at least, if it does so, that nation is in a sorry place.

All in all, in fact, it was rather like a hanging: there was something indescribably thrilling about it, but in the end, you know, it was a bit of a let down.

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