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Olympics Opening Ceremony Was Transcendent TV -- Here's An Annotated Scrapbook
August 9, 2008  | By David Bianculli

Olympics Opening Ceremony Was Transcendent TV -- Here's An Annotated Scrapbook

The opening ceremony of the XIX Summer Olympics was a transcendent TV event. Every time you think the Chinese couldn't top themselves, they did.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," usually cited as an ancient Chinese proverb, actually isn't ancient or Chinese at all. But with the Olympics opening ceremony handled so stunningly by China, only an annotated photo album does the evening, or the NBC telecast, justice. So here goes...

OLYMPICS-open-scroll.jpg OLYMPICS-open-human-paintbr.jpg OLYMPICS-open-finished-draw.jpg

The LED scroll was an early stunner -- rolling out like a sheet of papyrus, then presenting a giant canvas on which dancers used themselves as human paintbrushes. When the drawing was completed -- a long-revered harmonic image of mountains and water -- it flew, seemingly by magic, to be "hung" in midair.

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Other early knockouts: The drummers whose drum heads were illuminated with white light, making their surfaces first random, then choreographed, in a countdown to the opening ceremonies. Amazing. Then using humans to bring to life giant, undulating printing blocks, rising and falling in patterns spelling out Chinese characters, such as the one above, which means "Harmony."

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Overall, the meticulous use of synchronized choreography was amazing. If the scale didn't knock you out, the visual artistry did. There was nothing fancy about thousands of people doing tai chi at the same time, except for the precision with which they executed the actions and patterns of their choreographed routines. And when the dancers, in their illuminated suits, became a giant dove, that was only the beginning...

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Then they climbed onto one another and became the Bird's Nest, approximating the very stadium in which they were performing. In long shot, as a young girl was flown overhead while flying a kite, it was remarkable. Close-up, it was jaw-dropping.

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The parade of nations was glorious, and there were no boos, no protests, to detract from the rare and inspirational display of mutual respect. I was fascinated by the costumes, the faces, the smiles, the pride. Even by the surprises, such as the hideous outfits worn by the Hungarian women and the proudly modern beauty of the flag-carrier from the often oppressive-to-women United Arab Emirates.

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Somewhere in there, President George W. Bush got so bored, waiting for the U.S.'s turn, that a TV camera's zoom lens caught a grainy photo of him looking distractedly at his watch. But finally, the United States got to parade -- and we, too, received a very warm welcome from the crowd inside the stadium.

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Then, after basketball star Yao Ming carried his flag for China, the ceremony topped itself with the best that it was saving for last. A relay of torch bearers ended with one Chinese athlete standing at the center of the stadium, then suddenly (hoisted by wires unnoticed at the time) took flight, beginning a full circuit around the inner ring of the open upper stadium.

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He was running on air around the Bird's Nest. And after his circuit, he lit what looked like a huge fuse, which raced towards and illuminated the Olympics torch. Mission accomplished.

And for China, wanting to put its best foot forward, mission very, very accomplished.





Michael said:

Thanks for the extra weekend blog ... I think more people already have read this than saw the X-Files movie.

Comment posted on August 9, 2008 6:23 PM

fej said:

I am generally not interested in the opening ceremonies and only slightly interested in the Olympics, but I am a huge fan of Zhang Yimou so I was looking forward to it. Unbelievable and spine tingling. Surpassed my high expectations, and completely got me in the mood for the games and the spirit of the Olympics, which I guess is really what the opening ceremonies are supposed to do. Just wow.

Thanks for the blog. Fej

Comment posted on August 10, 2008 12:28 PM

Paul said:

I might have enjoyed the opening ceremonies more if the blabbers in the overcrowded booth would have shut up more. I know it's not the same thing, but would Madden and Michaels ever feel the need to talk through, say, a Super Bowl halftime performance? Perhaps in the middle of a song, Madden could blurt out: "BOOM Al, that Paul McCartney is the greatest!" Apparently (and I recorded it), Lauer and Costas spent half of their time gushing about how great it was. Which sounds fine, but if they just restrained themselves and only pointed out the ground breaking technical innovations while Ramo talked about the symbolism, we could have actually soaked in more of the experience. That would have included the music - which was there for a PURPOSE. Even Ramo's contribution was mediocre. I laughed when he pointed out that a headdress looked somewhat as if it had come from India, another sign of China's openness. Yeah, there's a casual connection there, expecially if you count say, THE BUDDHA, India's most famous export who's was much more embraced in China than in his home country. THAT might have been worth mentioning. (By the way, those Kung Fu Shaolin monks that we of the West love to think of as representing Chinese culture are, well, Buddhists. I say this neither as an anti-China activist or a Buddhist, but as someone who seems to have more education that NBCs China expert.) I've been watching the Olympics since Sapporo '72 and have well over 100 hours taped from this decade, and NBCs never been better than mediocre. They confuse quantity with quality. There's a reason men like Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker were able to create the climate for world wide sports that makes today's Olympics a cash cow for NBC. It was because they just communicated the reason the competition was significant in a simple, straightforward manner. As opposed to NBC, the network of synergy; a network that confuses soapy features, music videos, and gushy interviews for journalism; a network that plays heats in primetime while ignoring medal competition; a network so "homeristic" that it gushes about Americans destined to finish way out of the medals and then silently wipes the egg off its face when they do just that (compelling television!); and a network that plays mostly lame commericials on an average of less than every 10 minutes - sometimes 5 (whatever happened to NAB guidelines?). I mean, couldn't they have found a couple of sponsors to allow limited commercial interruptions to the "greatest ever" opening ceremony? I believe they've done this before. Matt came back at one point and said something like, "while you've been gone, 200 years of Chinese culture has passed". What the hey, who'd want to see something like that, anyway?

Let's set the Olympic bar higher,
Paul from Richmond, KY

Comment posted on August 10, 2008 2:49 PM

SYD B said:

This is off-topic but looking at your recent TV picks you mention "Breaking Away" a couple of times - both times you inaccurately set the movie in Indianapolis - the movie is set (and was filmed) in Bloomington, Indiana, home to Indiana University, who sponsors the Little 5 bike race, which anchors the premise of the whole movie.

How could you miss that considering you "love this movie"? (Because my brain cells are melting away, one by one. No other excuse. You're right, and I'm wrong -- but I DO love this movie. It's just that some things stick, and others slip slide away. I can re-read "Moby-Dick" every few years and ALWAYS be surprised by what happens at the end. My bad. And my apologies, to you and to Bloomington. -- David B.)

Comment posted on August 11, 2008 3:48 AM

Dennis said:

You say that "A picture is worth a thousand words," usually cited as an ancient Chinese proverb. But I don't think I've ever heard that phrase described as a Chinese proverb. It's actually a pretty strange suggestion because Chinese words are pictures. (It's been wrongly, and commonly, credited to, among others, Confucius... which explains part of the Confucion.... -- David B.)

Comment posted on August 11, 2008 9:00 AM

Chris J. said:

The real story wasn't Yao Ming carrying the Chinese flag, but the boy that accompanied him. If you missed it, he was trapped in his school during the earthquake. He got himself free and then went back in to save two of his classmates. When asked why he did it, he responded matter of factly "Because I was the hall monitor. That was my job." Truly remarkable.

Comment posted on August 11, 2008 9:59 AM

anchorgirl said:

Despite the jaw-dropping spectacle of the opening ceremonies, I was most astonished by Bush's loutish behavior, the low point of which was his smirk at Laura as Iraq's team walked by.

Comment posted on August 11, 2008 2:52 PM

Syd B said:

David B.

Thank you for your reply. I didn't mean to sound so harsh - lol.

I enjoy your website and your commentary on Fresh Air. Many thanks. (My pleasure -- and it's a mistake I won't make again. No offense taken, and I'm glad to have you reading, and writing to, TV WORTH WATCHING. -- David B.)

Comment posted on August 11, 2008 10:18 PM

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