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A New Olympia

A New Olympia

Director Zhang Yimou’s Opening Ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics have restored my belief in the power of spectacle. The evening’s performance was a mind-blowing mixture of history, culture and the latest in technology, all of it choreographed with unbelievable precision I have always admired Zhang’s films, but even the spectacle of his recent epics like House of Flying Daggers and Hero could not match the raw power of this presentation. For me, it was the scale of having the cast of thousands mixed with the modernity of the stadium’s architecture and technology that was so captivating. I have read some criticisms of the Ceremonies, all of which seem rather irrelevant to me…Let me pull a quote, too:

“But despite the beauty of the spectacle, the conscious decision to create a narrative that rewrites both Chinese history and reality and presents a sugar-sweet sunshine portrait to the world is alarming — but the fact that the NBC commentators unquestioningly went along with it is downright appalling…it’s unacceptable for NBC to be, or appear to be, in the Communist Party’s pocket. This is about more than routine criticism about commentators being trite. There is a lot more at stake right now, and we must vigilantly demand that Olympic coverage is never compromised.”Katherine Goldstein, Huffington Post

Who in their right mind thinks the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics is the proper place to express dissent? Did announcers covering the Atlanta or Los Angeles Olympics highlight the absence of a discussion of our nation’s shameful history of slavery or our treatment of Native Americans? Should the Super Bowl Halftime show have raised the issue of detainees in Guantanamo Bay? I don’t need Matt Lauer and Bob Costas to spend their time during the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics to share their thoughts on the history of Chinese political oppression; We’ve heard, and continue to hear, that story. Instead, all they did was parse the actual event itself in the simple terms of Zhang’s own symbolism without commenting on that symbolism itself. More than enough, I think.

Besides, the visual power of this piece was so overwhelming, it seems to stand above these minor critiques and, somehow, has redefined the nature of human spectacle. This was pure theater, above and beyond anything we’ve ever seen before; Bigger than any opera, larger than any film, pulled off by thousands of peformers in perfect harmony with one another. I was riveted, dying to see what was next.

The relationship between cinema and the Olympics is nothing new; Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant Olympia redefined the way we look at the athletes and the Olympic games forever. She practically invented modern athlete worship; I can’t watch a Nike commercial or NFL Films presentation without thinking of her. But Zhang’s Opening Ceremonies were beyond the limitations of sport, using the moment to reimagine the relationship between sport, culture and spectacle. Step aside, Leni Refenstahl; You’ve been topped. We have a new Olympia for a new century.

(Photo/ AFP Joe Klamar)

(Photo/ AFP Olivier Morin)

(Photo/ Getty Images, Adam Pretty)

(Photo/ Getty Images, Clive Rose)

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