London 2012: the opening ceremonies


I think the Olympics are great. I especially like the opening ceremony.



Actually, the opening ceremony is pretty much the only thing I like. I find the athletic events dull. (Over the past few days I have watched bits of volleyball, and cycling, and swimming, and I cannot stifle my yawns.)



But the opening ceremonies – yowzah! They are an opportunity for the host country to tell a story about itself. We all remember the powerfully choreographed opening of the Beijing Olympics, with 2008 drummers in sync with one another, and later the adorable children from all over China, in ethnic costumes. (I vaguely recall that one of the children was lip-synching a song, but let us not speak of that.) I also recall the Vancouver Olympics, with a sort of rippling pool of light in which we saw Native American images, and a huge bear, and fiddlers, and – well, all kinds of things.



The London ceremony was huge, and sloppy, and very endearing. We knew in advance that it was going to be the “English countryside,” and snippy commentators were predicting sheep and cottages. Well, we did in fact get sheep and cottages. We also got the countryside (literally) rolled away. We got the World-Tree ripped from the top of Glastonbury Tor. We got Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” growing out of the floor. We got suffragettes, and the Jarrow Marchers, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.



Danny Boyle, the director of “Slumdog Millionaire,” did a wonderful thing: he tried his very best to include everything. And I think he may well have succeeded. (I think he put up a posterboard: “What is the UK?” And he, and everyone, put up notes, for days and days. And he included everything that everyone suggested.)



We got music, and weather reports, and Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod,” and “Jerusalem.” We got J. K. Rowling. We got Tim Berners-Lee. We got the Stones, and Cruella de Ville. We got Paul McCartney! We got the Sex Pistols. We got the Queen (the actual Queen!) and her corgis, with Daniel Craig as James Bond. We got allusions to Austin Powers and J. R. R. Tolkien. We got Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.



We got an elaborate salute to the UK’s National Health Service, right in front of Mitt and Ann Romney, and I would have loved to ask them how they enjoyed it.



The Beijing ceremony in 2008 was about unity and power. The London ceremony was about diversity. The choreography – dear God! – was elaborate in the extreme, but it seemed almost random: groups of marchers drifting together, marching through one another’s ranks, and separating again.



One of the Financial Times commentators last weekend said, nicely: “The parts that didn’t work highlighted the parts that did.” Exactly right. The rock-and-roll section was a little long, and maybe Rowan Atkinson / Mister Bean was a little over-the-top, but it all worked. (A lot of people on Tumblr seem to think that the Olympic cauldron, which only came together in the last moments of the ceremony, was the Eye of Sauron. I don’t think so. But – who knows?)



Sadly, I had to watch this ceremony on American television, on NBC. Matt Lauer (whom I thought was smarter than this) treated it as the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, and  giggled and talked through the whole thing. Bob Costas (to whom I am used by now, after many Olympics) thinks he has to do color commentary through the whole thing. My Tumblr idol, wellthatsjustgreat, wrote some wonderfully scathing commentary on Messrs. Lauer and Costas, which I encourage you to read. In effect, they almost ruined the thing, especially the Parade of Nations. (Well, NBC helped; they decided that we didn’t need to see whole chunks of the ceremony, and dumped in a fatuous interview with Michael Phelps. Also, I am told by a correspondent in the UK that the BBC coverage was even worse.)



I have the ceremony on the DVR. I have already watched bits over again. I still haven’t gotten all of the British-culture references. I probably never will.



It was wonderful, nonetheless.


(And now I have to go back and watch the Vancouver ceremony from 2010, because I still don’t have all of that one figured out either.)


The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee


If you tuned into BBC America last weekend, you saw the spectacle: a whole bunch of boats cruising down the Thames in the pouring rain with sirens wailing, and thousands of people standing on the riverbanks getting hypothermia and pneumonia at the same time.

This was, of course, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Queen Elizabeth II (or “Cousin Lilibet,” as I like to call her) celebrated her 60th anniversary on the throne of the United Kingdom last weekend. It rained like hell. She was a trouper, however, and a good Englishwoman, and stood (with someone holding an umbrella over her head) and waved and smiled and had a good word for everyone.

She is an amazing figure, in her way. There was a fascinating article in the Financial Times last weekend, theorizing that her insistence on saying only the obvious, and her minimalist facial expressions, and her “anodyne conversation,” and her general passivity, are the secrets of her success. A more assertive / active monarch wouldn’t be anywhere near as sympathetic as she is. We can all imagine ourselves chatting with her, or socializing with her: she’s a blank slate. (I remember having a dream years ago in which she came over for dinner. I made spaghetti in the washing machine, but it didn’t turn out very well; she was very good about it, however, and didn’t complain.) Her mother was the soul of good cheer also (although behind the scenes she was said to be catty, and a drinker, and a gambler).

Elizabeth’s uncle, the Duke of Windsor, had some personality. Sadly, it was the wrong kind of personality. Prince Charles has some personality too, but it’s a constipated angry prissy personality, and I wonder – if he actually does succeed to the throne – how popular he’ll be. (Smarter of him, probably, to let one of his sons succeed when Elizabeth passes away.  But, like his great-great-grandfather Edward VII, he’s been waiting for his mummy to die for a very long time.  I don’t think he’ll take himself out of the succession.)

When I was young, I used to read English history all the time; it was far more interesting and dramatic than American history. I longed for kings and queens. Now, at my advanced age, having lived in the Kingdom of Morocco and the Republic of Tunisia as well as the United States of America, I absolutely prefer living in a republic.

If I need a queen, I’ll send for RuPaul or one of the Drag Race contestants.

(One last story, unsubstantiated but funny: The Queen Mum preferred, for whatever reason, to hire gay servants and footmen. One evening, late, she phoned down to the kitchen from her bedroom: “I don’t know what you young queens are doing down there,” she said, “but this old queen up here wants a gin and tonic.”)

So, anyway: God save the Queen.

The royals

Partner and I saw “The King’s Speech” on Sunday. Geoffrey Rush is especially notable as the nonconformist speech therapist who says disrespectful things, but says them with love. Firth is the Duke of York / King George VI, full of bottled-up rage, but a pukka sahib nonetheless. It’s probably a harder acting job than Rush’s, but it isn’t as flashy.



There are lots of fun actors in the bits-and-pieces roles: Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter franchise), shaking his jowls like mad as Winston Churchill; Anthony Andrews (babe, where have you been since “Brideshead Revisited”?) as Stanley Baldwin; Derek Jacobi as the unbearable Archbishop of Canterbury; Helena Bonham-Carter as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, plump and sugar-sweet and sure of herself; Michael Gambon, dumping the Dumbledore routine to portray a nasty crusty George V; and Guy Pearce, playing the Prince of Wales as a Jazz Age creep.



I commented to Partner on the way home, as we slogged through the snow, that I remembered something called “The Woman I Love,” which portrayed the Prince of Wales (the ethereal Richard Chamberlain) as a misunderstood romantic. In “The King’s Speech,” the Prince is a dimwitted simp, thoughtless and easily manipulated.



Funny how attitudes change.



I recently watched “The Queen” again. Watching Helen Mirren is like watching QEII herself; she has exactly the right reserve, the dry pursing of the lips, the very light touch of coarseness (deerstalking, corgis, big ugly scarves).



But she’s a myth.  All of the royals are myths. I think Americans like me mythologize them more than the British do. They personify whole periods of history: the Victorian Era, the Edwardian era, the Tudor period for God’s sake!



But they don’t always personify what they want to personify.



If you asked Elizabeth II what she thought she stood for, she’d say something stolid and proper like: England. The United Kingdom. The Commonwealth. Traditional values.



And the real answer would be: The stubborn maintenance of outdated attitudes. The necessity of being polite to your grandma, even though you disagree with her about everything.



And, most of all, the importance of always carrying a handbag.




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