Saturday, July 28, 2012

Danny Boyle’s razzamatazz really didn’t do it for me

by Nick Zegarac

Last night Danny Boyle officially christened the 30th Olympiad in London with a rather frenetic display of dumb show that quite simply failed to excite. It isn’t that the creative choices made along the way were uninspired. But Boyle’s craft as a film maker seems to have been working against him. The extended ‘flight over England’ opening montage unraveled at a dragonfly’s frenzied pace, feeling more like a Disney-Epcot attraction as it dipped and soared in and out of famous London landmarks, enough to frequently unsettle the equilibrium.

From this great height the ceremonies had nowhere else to go but down – and they did. The interminable agrarian segment opened with Kenneth Branagh receipting a brief passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as milkmaids and farmers pleasantly cavorted amidst live sheep, geese, cows and poultry. There really wasn’t much of a point to any of it, except to water down the national perception of jolly ol’ England as a quaint pastoral hamlet where everyone pranced through life untouched by wars or plague.

From here Boyle chose a most typical and pedestrian postmodern approach to his material, making short shrift of virtually all of England’s world contributions by poking fun at some while extolling mostly the darkness of others.  The industrial age, as example, that revolutionized England and brought about its enduring prosperity, was reconceived by Boyle as a monstrous destruction of that idyllic green isle, complete with apocalyptic billowing smoke stacks rising up from the stadium floor. A sort of J.R.R. Tolken inspired forging of the Olympic rings followed: a sweltering foundry, accompanied by a rough and tumble motley crew of sweat-soaked, dower-faced factory workers.

The great villains of British literature were exorcised in a nightmarish parade to the tune of a slightly revamped Tubular Bells from The Exorcist. This capped off the overly long and just plain creepy infomercial for London’s Children Hospital and Health Services with its even more chilling and gargantuan Casper-eque glowing baby taking center stage as it shimmered like an ill-omened ghostly precursor of things yet to come.

Obviously well tots were wheeled out on ominously glowing hospital beds and gurneys by a solemn gaggle of nurses and physicians dressed in period attire, to be terrorized by their worst nightmares. We were given leering likenesses of Captain Hook, Cruella De Vil and that thing from Harry Potter. There were also brief glimpses of The Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland.
But where, oh where, were the heroes of British literature? Overlooking Peter Pan, Alice, Winnie the Pooh, Robin Hood and even Harry Potter himself, Boyle’s production leapt ahead into a woeful mishmash of predigested vignettes. The worst of these was easily the ode to family and technology that frequently cut away from the stadium to filmic inserts of an interracial couple having to cope with their more techno-savvy offspring who just wanted to party and text all night long.

But Boyle succumbed into pure undiluted camp with yet another filmed segment as Daniel Craig’s Bond arrived at Buckingham Palace to collect the Queen in a helicopter. More dizzying aerial shots of London, and then a tasteless glimpse of an actress dressed as Elizabeth plummeting from the copter with a parachute strapped to her back. The real monarch emerged from behind a wall and took her place in the box with an incredulous look about her that endured throughout the garish spectacle, but with a vibrant Prince Philip at her side. Apparently, Craig did not survive the jump! Perhaps a more fitting tribute to the iconography of Bond might have been all of the actors who played Britain’s most amiable super spy over the years (all of whom are still very much alive) arriving en masse in Aston Martins or submersible Lotus Esprit.
Unfortunately, when it came to extolling Britain’s overwhelming contributions to the world of entertainment, Boyle’s kitsch and coo was more focused on knocking rather than celebrating the fond memories of its bygone days. The Beatles, arguably the most enduring of all British 60s pop groups, were briefly reincarnated in a parade of men dressed in Sergeant Pepper garb, leaving an over the hill Sir Paul McCartney to truly fracture the band’s Hey Jude later in the ceremony. Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean fluffed off Vangelis’ Chariots Of Fire, first by attempting to pick his nose and then wipe his finger clean while pretending to play one note on a synthesizer, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra; then by daydreaming himself into the original movie’s famed running sequence, only to trip up the competition and win the race.  

There were no references – or even filmic inserts – of the many iconic British talents who have enriched our appreciation over the years for great acting; Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier, Peter Finch, Rex Harrison, James Mason, Cary Grant, Ronald Colman, David Niven, Peter Sellers et al. These, and others like them, apparently had no place in Boyle’s chaotic thrashing. And neither did the likes of Tom Jones, Lulu or Petula Clark when it came to celebrating the country’s contributions to music. Instead, Boyle’s production was top heavily focused on the noisier bands that marked England’s pop culture. As if to further snub the stately grandeur of the monarchy, Boyle included a fleeting insert of the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen – a notorious revision of the more traditional anthem once banned in England.

Save the always welcome parade of nations – a staggering display of 10,500 athletes entering the stadium en masse, the overall tone and mood of the opening ceremonies was more dark than colorful. P.L. Traver’s Mary Poppins looked more like one of the chimney sweeps; an umbrella toting gargoyle dressed entirely in black as she descended from out of the clouds.  For the grand finale, soccer legend David Beckham drove a raging speedboat beneath Tower Bridge with one of the torch bearers firmly clutching a bizarre trumpet-shaped funnel of flames.
But the igniting of the central torch in Olympic Stadium was somewhat diffused by having seven teenage athletes share in the moment. Meant to show solidarity among all athletes, this united front instead became something of a postmodernist apology and/or footnote to the way competition in all aspects of life – not just sports – is viewed today. There are no winners or losers – just one great community of achievers.

Prior to unleashing his noisy three hour plus stomp and grind, with its stovepipe hatted gentlemen and infantilized milkmaids performing some truly out of sync choreography that, at least at times looked like a painfully bad homage to either Vanilla Ice or M.C. Hammer, Danny Boyle went public with a forewarning of what we were to expect.

“You can’t get bigger than Beijing,” said Boyle, “We’ll try and do something different.” Last night’s opening ceremony was just that – different! But there was no pomp and pageantry to any of it: just a lot of overzealous vulgarity and clamor, a woefully strained attempt to mask the rather miniscule $40 million dollar budget, dwarfed by Beijing’s $100 million dollar super spectacular.  

Money isn’t everything. And arguably, another director could have done much more or even better on a budget half as much. But was England’s opener truly worthy of the time-honored Olympic spirit? While the Queen, Prince William and Kate understandably looked as though they would rather be elsewhere for most of the festivities, a gregarious showman dedicated to the glorification of such ostentation like Florenz Ziegfeld would not have been surprised.