Monday, August 11, 2008

Cinematic Ceremonies

It was no surprise last Friday when, early into NBC’s coverage, Bob Costas compared the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games to cinema. After all, the general director of the kickoff festivities in Beijing was Zhang Yimou, director of such films as Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. Thus the movie link was obvious – and there are few things TV commentators enjoy more than making obvious connections. What was surprising, however, was that the ceremonies actually achieved that easy-to-say but hard-to-live-up-to billing. Epic and panoramic by every standard, Zhang’s $300 million production was truly cinematic. Even, it turns out, truly falsely cinematic.

Confused? This weekend the London Telegraph, citing the Beijing Times, kinda-sorta broke a news story exposing that most of the fireworks explosions in the 29 “Footsteps of History” portion of the show were “faked” – filmed piece by piece more than a year ago and then digitally edited together to create an authentic-looking series of canned explosions that led up to a blast of real fireworks at the Bird’s Nest National Stadium. To some, this deception was quite a shock. To others, not so much: in NBC’s live coverage, co-host Matt Lauer noted that the footsteps were a “cinematic device.”

I watched almost all of the opening ceremonies, but I missed the “footsteps.” The fireworks I did see, though, were so plentiful and extreme in scope that I questioned their validity from the start. For the annual Independence Day fireworks show here in Washington, DC, a portion of the National Mall is closed off for the entire day. How was it then, I wondered, that fireworks could be launched from so many areas surrounding the stadium without putting attendees in danger? The ceremonies’ spectacle was almost too big to believe, and not for the first time that night. What about that official countdown to the games, executed – we’re made to believe – by 2,008 perfectly synchronized drummers? Only once did I see a mistake (a drum lighting up that shouldn’t have). Is that too good to be true? And what about the most breathtaking spectacle of the show: the moveable typeset that formed Chinese characters, mirrored the wind and reproduced the Great Wall? Yeah, I was watching when 897 smiling performers popped out of their boxes and enthusiastically waved at the end. But was that performance free of computer orchestration? And if not, does it matter?

It’s interesting that the purity of the opening ceremonies is being debated right now. You’d think that’s the one part of the Olympics in which performance enhancers wouldn’t be an issue. Last night, the U.S. men’s 4x100 relay team thrilled American audiences with a come-from-behind, world record-setting win so magical that it seemed like the stuff of cinema – which is to say almost too magical. Watching the replay was for me yet another sad reminder that we’ve reached a point in sports in which the more extraordinary something seems, the more dangerous it feels to believe in it. Now when I see a heroic feat in the pool, on the track or on the field, I think, “Please be clean.”

Performance enhancing drugs are so readily available and so high tech that some have argued that keeping them out of sports is a waste of time. Let the athletes use whatever supplements they want, they say. It’s the spectacle we come to see, they argue – the results. But baseball fans might remember that Barry Bonds’ awesome home runs immediately felt perfunctory in retrospect once it was confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had been powered by steroids. What we seek in sports, it seems to me, is to witness our notion of humankind’s limits challenged naturally.

That’s why we want our athletes clean. And that’s why a film like Man On Wire, the documentary about the Frenchman who in 1974 walked on a tightrope strung between the World Trade Center towers, is so awe-inspiring. That’s also why the oh-so-simple motorcycle leap in The Great Escape has within it a raw force that all of Transformers lacks. Fantasy is fine, and sometimes fantastic – at least for a while. But what made the opening ceremonies so amazing was its reality – 15,000-plus performers beating drums, puppeting boxes, waving flags, performing karate and so on. George Lucas and others have dreamed up stuff like this and commissioned it for digital rendering, but Zhang went out and realized it. Emphasis on the real.

As I went to bed Friday night I hoped that every CGI-inclined director in the world had watched those opening ceremonies. Frosted with effects though they might have been, they served as a reminder that the truly human achievement still has no rival.


Ed Howard said...

Interesting that people accept these kind of abstract, purely visual extravaganzas at something as widely watched as the opening ceremonies, but wouldn't consider going to an experimental film that played with light and color in similar ways.

And what you say about effects is very true, and one reason why I liked Death Proof so much -- the car chase scenes have an urgency and reality totally lacking from most mainstream action flicks these days.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: Good point. And you’re right on about “Death Proof.” The “ship’s mast” sequence was for me the most thrilling 20 or however-many minutes at the cinema last year … maybe in the past few years. Absolutely exhilarating, and yet simplistic relative to today’s modern action movie.

On a somewhat similar note: A few weeks ago I watched the mostly enjoyable “Tell No One.” It includes a fantastic fleeing-from-the-cops sequence that’s gripping because it’s so (a) realistic and so (b) straightforwardly created. During the sequence, the guy on the run does the walk-across-several-lanes-of-heavy-traffic bit – and it works. Thanks to a mostly still camera that allows us to soak in the realism, those few seconds are achingly tense. In contrast, “Indy 4” is filled with all sorts of larger-than-life set pieces that fail to register.

Fox said...

"Watching the replay was for me yet another sad reminder that we’ve reached a point in sports in which the more extraordinary something seems, the more dangerous it feels to believe in it. Now when I see a heroic feat in the pool, on the track or on the field, I think, 'Please be clean.' "

You are so right about this. The dream is shattered. Every time an athlete does something impressive, that doubt enters your mind. When we were kids and saw Walter Payton, or Jordan, or Mark McGwire (when he hit 49 HRs his rookie season!), it was just amazement and joy. Now it's "hmmm, I wonder if..."

It's really a pity.