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August 09, 2008

Ten observations about the Olympics opening ceremony

All the superlatives were earned. Epic. Stunning. A true event. Many will watch this more than once, buying it on Blu-ray to show off their high-def TVs. NBC Universal hasn't scheduled an encore presentation yet, but likely will find room for it somewhere (they have enough networks, after all).

Here's 10 random thoughts and impressions:

-- You watch the Beijing ceremony feeling hugely impressed, yet vaguely uneasy. So much of the event employs synchronized, rigorously trained masses -- rows upon rows of drummers, dancers, Tai-chi experts; an army of artists. As an American, it's tough not to feel a thumping sense of militancy and threat -- "awe inspiring, and perhaps a little intimidating," one NBC announcer noted, which seems about right.

-- Sarah Brightman looked Botoxed to the gills.

-- The synchronized Chinese printing blocks were inspired. Illustrating the Great Wall collapsing and being replaced by flowers was moving. The decision to pull back the curtain on the production to show the blocks were powered by people was a very clever twist. This segment was the visual and emotional peak.

-- NBC's shot of George W. Bush not paying attention -- chatting away during the $300 million, globally telecast production -- was a hilarious cutaway made even better by commentator Matt Lauer's attempt to save it. "President Bush, still talking to Vladimir Putin," Lauer said. "Perhaps talking about that opening drum number still." Riiiight.

-- Those oversized cut-out photos of kids were a wee bit creepy. Like a sea of milk carton runaways.

-- Things were pretty tense watching that final torch bearer being precariously yanked about on wires, the torch seeming to flicker out, like the whole production was about to go spectacularly off the rails. That's the unfortunate part of not being able to watch this live; there's less suspense, we know everything turned out OK.

-- Another thought about the whole "artist army" thing. An enjoyable cliché in Hollywood and Chinese action films production is to use CGI to replicate a few soldiers into thousands. Friday's display seemed to work overtime to bring to life CGI adventure films (such as in opening ceremony director Zhang Yimou's own work). Modern viewers have such lofty expectations for what constitutes an Epic that it takes millions of dollars and 15,000 highly trained performers to successfully compete with the images produced by a couple of digital effects experts snacking at their Marin County computer workstations.

-- It's tough to be impartial toward China's history of political oppression when writing a review about the opening ceremony when the country blocks online access to many Western news and opinion sites (including this blog). It's like trying to honestly appraise somebody who finds you utterly objectionable. I don't care if they invented paper, it's still a dick move.

-- Commentator Bob Costas' snappy segue to one commercial break, "Don't go away -- why wouldja?" was quintessentially American.

-- That said, NBC's thoughtful-sounding China analyst Josh Cooper Ramo could have -- should have -- provided commentary solo. He knew best when to speak up, and his insights were welcome. Lauer and Costas seemed downright terrified of dead air, like nervous dinner party hosts. 


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