Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, February 10, 2006

Tomight's Olympics Spectacular

The Europeans do have a way with pageants. I wish I could get my hands on footage of the parade through the streets of Paris for the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Storming of the Bastille in 1989. It was just one odd image after another, ending with Jessye Norman singing La Marseillaise, which was a great touch – on the one hand a simple choice of production values over nationalism, but also making broader claim for the French Revolution as an event that shaped and belongs to the world. I guess. But c’mon, this was a national celebration.

So you see the same stuff in Cirque de Soleil, and then tonight in the Olympics opening ceremony. The athletes came in accompanied with cheesy 1980s disco music – it’s only fitting that a celebration of winter sports acknowledge the cultural contributions of the Eurotrash, high end Roma moving between ski resorts all winter long. Much opportunity for making fun of costumes. The Jack Abramoff fedora and trenchcoat look seemed popular. The Germans had colorful knit caps with visors for their athletes, but had to put strands of Heidi braids on the ones for the women. That was gratuitous.

The Olympics are now required to have an impenetrable and haphazard allegorical pageant in the opening ceremony. Women in elongated Amy Cutler clothes floated around in midair, a couple of them attached to big balloons of the moon and sun that wandered around aimlessly. A woman, I think she was singing, stood in a clam shell. But she had clothes on. Then there was a dance, and oh yeah, before that there were a couple of guys with things on their backs that shot out sparks like the circular saw girl on Letterman. A driver toured the stage in a Formula 1 racer. And some other stuff I didn’t see. All the time the athletes were standing in this big bowl in the middle of the stadium, like they would pour in water and cook them. It ends with a couple of speeches and the torch thing, which gets you back to Speer, Riefenstahl, and Nuremburg every time. Luciano Pavrotti closed it, nearly, with luridly dyed hair and eyebrows and a rendition of Nessun Dorma. He marshaled his resources for the final climax, and the athletes cheered it like one of their own had come out of retirement to nail a triple axel. Curtain down. But it’s not over yet. Then fireworks shot out of the roof of the stadium.

When the teams march in, a lot of them had digital cameras and were snapping away at the crowd, at themselves. It was cute, and broke the ceremonial illusion with people acting like people, excited to be there. I’ve known a couple of people who competed in the Olympics, not big media star types, and their international competition days were a great ride. For the people I’ve talked to most, they had not previously had a chance to travel, see the world and interact with people from all over.

With their cameras, the marchers are both spectacle and spectator. You can look at this a couple of ways. One is that with those cameras the marchers make the spectacle complete and all-encompassing, in that everyone gets incorporated into in the event in the role of spectator. Not even the actors can get behind the illusion. The other view is what I first mentioned, that exercising acts as an individual in the view of the spectators breaks the smooth image that the spectacle is trying to create. They are engaged in personal actions (getting a picture for their own memory purposes) that do not contribute to the creation of the spectacular form. I don’t remember anyone in Triumph of the Will breaking out of line to wave at the camera.

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