Vancouver 2010

Ouzounian: Medium marvellous, message mediocre

Big-screen experience underscores poverty of old, tired images

February 13, 2010 Richard Ouzounian

The eyes of the world were on us and we put them to sleep.

It's disappointing and humbling to admit, but the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics were – with a few exceptions – an unimaginatively conceived and loosely executed spectacle that promised much and delivered little, symbolized by the final embarrassing moments when the climactic lighting of the Olympic flame was sacrificed to a spectacle of botched technical expertise when the hydraulic system misfired.

It was fascinating to sit in the Scotiabank Theatre and watch the events unfold in high definition on a big screen. Except for the occasional shock of seeing an announcer who had dipped too heavily into the makeup kit, this is definitely the way to go and I plan to return to watch some of the competitions with this clarity and scale.

But the visual richness of the medium also served to underscore the poverty of the message

The audience came pumped for the event, cheering when the ceremony began, even applauding for Nikki Yanofsky's ill-advised rendition of our national anthem. (Who thought that an uncomfortable alliance of pop and jazz was what we needed to get things started?)

And it was a great reminder of our cultural mosaic that, during the parade of athletes, virtually every country that entered drew a smattering of applause from members of the audience, supporting their country of origin.

But apart from that, there wasn't a lot of noise from the crowd and I don't blame them. At first, it looked like no cliché would be left unturned – Mounties carrying out the flag – and that the organizing authorities were asleep at the switch. (What caused the embarrassing empty spaces in the VIP box, or the constant traffic in and out?)

The much-discussed and anticipated presence of the four First Nations peoples on whose original land these ceremonies were taking place was treated with honesty and flair, even if the giant welcoming totem poles that rose from the ground looked uncomfortably phallic and the small groups of First Nations representatives who entered seemed dwarfed by the size of the scenery around them.

And then, the additional parade of aboriginal peoples who followed and remained to welcome the world's athletes raised another issue. We are one of the most multicultural nations in the world. Why didn't all of our peoples greet the athletes? Why did it all start to look like a giant Heritage Moment gone horribly wrong.

At the 45-minute point in the ceremonies, nothing had been shown to the world to illustrate that this is one of the most complex, urban, sophisticated countries on Earth.

What filled the screen instead was one more reinforcement of the old, tired image we have presented to the world for years: picturesque, quaint, behind the times and terribly, terribly nice.

There were also some damaging design decisions. The 60,000 audience members all wore white or blue smocks that kept drawing the eye where it shouldn't have been.

And yes, it's the WINTER Olympics and we live in a land of snow and ice, but did all of BC Place have to be drenched in the same white and blue? No matter how madly the cameras switched or zoomed in, there was no focal point, nothing to hold onto.

In fact, that was what was wrong with the whole proceedings. It was a revelation to arrive two hours ahead of the ceremonies and watch the pre-show on CTV.

Here was the country I know and love. A land of feisty individuals, courageous people, men and women who live to work and win as well as party and play.

The MuchMusic segment from Whistler, complete with girls in a bar slurping down body shots off a random dude's six-pack, and one of the hosts doing his intros from a hot tub, is something we all could recognize, laugh with and enjoy.

Or when someone like Rick Hansen recreated his struggle after his devastating injury, or when we saw the troops in Kandahar finding joy in their hopes for the athletes back home, you could say "This is what it means to be Canadian."

Yes, there was perhaps a bit too much harping on the fact that no Canadian had ever won gold on home ice, but that odd combination of self-deprecation and bravado is also unique to our country.

But little or none of that found its way into the opening ceremonies. By the time an hour had ground by, there had been one truly moving moment: when the Georgian team entered, eyes rimmed with grief, black armbands paying tribute to their fallen colleague, Nodar Kumaritashvili.

Wait, the audience in the theatre suddenly came alive with the entrance of the Canadian team, raising their voices in wholehearted support. Yes, dammit we want to be joyous, we want to proud and if you give us the chance, we'll embrace it.

Don't give us empty tropes from the past, or politically correct tableaux and expect that will do the job. No, we're a nation of real people and we deserve a real celebration.

The official "cultural" portion began with Donald Sutherland intoning some syrupy prose about the great frozen North, while dozens of white-clad figures wandered around in falling snow. My God, you start to wonder, will the world think it's always winter up here.

The giant 20 metre, LED-covered bear puppet that rose up drew a few gasps from my audience, but then its resemblance to the wintertime Coke commercial started to sink in and giggles took over.

The subsequent storm and destruction of the ice cap is nothing that Cirque du Soleil hasn't done better on many occasions and you suddenly recall that they couldn't work things out with the forces of VANOC, which is why their inspired presence isn't here.

Sarah McLachlan sang sweetly, which drew warm applause at BC Place and in our theatre, but the pedestrian choreography from dancers of the Alberta Ballet that accompanied her vocal work was an embarrassment.

The rest of the spectacle had its moments of visual grandeur, thanks to the skilled lighting, projection and hologram designers, but the content behind it was intellectually and emotionally empty.

Combining W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind with Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and an aerial ballet shows the kind of poor thought that went into the evening.

Yes, when the great k.d. lang brought dignity to the singing of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" or Measha Brueggergosman gave us grandeur with the Olympic anthem, you saw a glimmer of what might have been, but why wasn't there more of that quality?

And the final lighting of the flame, with its tag team of athletic heroes, including The Great One himself, was undermined by that final technical mishap that left us waiting too long for too little.

One has to wonder what impression of Canada we left with the world. A land of endless winter, bad ballet and nifty lighting, with some powerhouse female vocalists?

I suppose we're all of that, but I'd like to think we're also a whole lot more and how do you begin to tell the billions who were watching that there's so much of our country that they've missed?

Source:Toronto Star


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