Sunday, February 14, 2010

Oh Canada - 2010 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony

I thought - I wonder what the rest of the world thinks.

Not because Canada needs "validation," but the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver last Friday was awash in local iconography. Most of it quite lovely. The risk of descent in to kitsch, of course, was high -- and it wasn't completely avoided. But there were a number of moments that reached for the profound.

I'd link to some of them here, but the International Olympic Committee -- that model of fair play and equal competition (ha, ha) -- has sent an army of monkeys to strip all content from YouTube and other sources (though the death of a Georgian luger can be seen over and over again on the official CTV site). Shame refuses to bow before profit. "Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch!" as Allen Ginsberg wrote in "Howl." (Notice I was able to link to that....)

Anyway, the rest of the world (results taken from a very small sample) seemed to enjoy the ceremony, but they were a bit perplexed by it.

In the U.K., the Indepenent's correspondent complained of getting the assignment to stay up all night:

The Winter Olympics? Me neither. It's hard enough getting worked up about a summer Olympics in this day and age.

An Olympic games opening ceremony? Me neither. But someone has to do it. So there we were at 2.0 yesterday morning, sitting up and tuned into the BBC, the bottle of Blue Nun in the fridge in case desperate measures were needed to make it through the night.

Still, s/he found the ceremony "was suitably classy. Or at least it managed to keep the ludicrousness to a minimum." Pretty good for someone from a nation that struggles to see beyond the seal hunt when it thinks of Canada.

While there is no indication that the correpondent understood or was at all engaged by the metaphoric apparatus of the diverse range of the ceremony's segments, the event's emphasis on geography wasn't lost on the correspondent, who wrote:

Canada is a country teeming with writers and musicians and some of their greatest were represented during what was at times a beautiful spectacle. Opening ceremonies are essentially tourist pageants for the host nation and Canada told its story through its fabulous landscape, from the Northern Lights of the Arctic Circle through to its vast golden prairies. A tableau featuring CGI images of the latter was particularly stunning: just a boy on the vast stage, the stadium bathed in yellow light and a lone voice singing Joni Mitchell's gorgeous ballad Both Sides Now.

[The "boy" was a girl.]

Australia's athletes reportedly enjoyed the experience. One Aussie website quoted athlete Bree Munro:

I thought it was actually quite spectacular. It was a great mix of all the different cultures from around Canada and it was just amazing the light show and technology that they’ve used. It’s moved opening ceremonies up to the next level. It’s a three dimensional show that offers everything, spectacular light to dancing, action and it was such a colourful collection of all Canadian culture. I was feeling proud to be part of such a spectacular event, and with every Canadian sitting there I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

The New York Times provided a typically wry report, which concluded with a comment about how tidy and civic minded Canadians are: "In Vancouver on Friday, young people thronged the streets for a couple of hours after the ceremony, singing, dancing, banging on drums. Then, almost at midnight on the dot, most of them went home."

Two evaluative paragraphs from the Times' report follow:

This ceremony was not without its marvels: there was a giant bear, whales spouting their way across the stadium floor, the now obligatory fliers and levitators. But a bigger part of the appeal was that the proceedings actually had some content.

The ceremony was long, a little dull at times, but it was also thoughtful and stirring. It was authentically and unabashedly Canadian. The poet Shane Koyczan pointed out that his was a country not afraid to use the words “please and thank you.” You could add that it’s a country unafraid to put a poet up there on the stage.

"Authentically and unabashedly Canadian" is an interesting phrase. It could mean that the ceremony had the emotional tenor of a Tim Horton's commercial. Or it could mean -- what?

This is what I'm interested in exploring, this thing the Times calls "content."

Personally, I didn't find the "poem" moving, but I did find it interesting. More on that below. In the meantime, The Toronto Quaterly has posted video and a copy of the complete poem, for those who haven't seen/heard/read it.

Ian Brown also provided an analysis of the ceremony's "content" in today's Globe and Mail:

The thing is this: it's a complicated country.

A lot of people noticed that Friday night, watching the opening ceremonies of the Games in Vancouver. They saw an abstract Canada, a place that has more collective interests than it does people to explain and reinforce them. It's a country that is an idea as much as it is a country, a strange and surreal and often lonely and sometimes surprisingly serious idea. And that, impressively, was what the ceremony was about.

Here's two of Brown's evaluative paragraphs:

The Canada the opening ceremonies showed to the world displayed a country that isn't afraid to use symbolism at an elevated level, despite an audience of millions. They could have pandered, but they didn't. The opening night of the Vancouver Olympics displayed a country that wasn't afraid to perform a spoken poem or recite passages from books - books! - in the middle of a stadium filled with about 50,000 people wearing white condom-like capes; that mixed in a minute's silence and a flag at half mast and a small funeral oration, thereby confronting the looming spectre of the death of an athlete that morning. All this happened in the middle of a breathtakingly beautiful and wet city on the edge of the sea. The sea was part of the show too, the importance of that sea and what is in it.

The Landscape of a Dream, the extended, multi-chaptered dance that formed the core of the show, was daring all on its own. It's always a risk to be sincere; the trick is not to be earnest. It wasn't. Up in the dignitaries' box, even Stephen Harper, a man who has the physical charm of a bathtub plug - even Hairhat looked like he was getting carried away. The whales and their blowholes spouting from the floor alone, to say nothing of the astonishing effects produced by the magic Kleenex box that hung from the centre of the ceiling - clouds, storms, water, blizzards cracking and melting ice - were funny and beautiful too. It was a show that took the elemental events of Canadian life, things that are often clichés, and dropped deeper into every one of them. The aerialist show over a patchwork of prairies could easily have appeared on any stage in any large sophisticated city in the world, and brought the house down.

I agree with Brown's sense that (parts of) the ceremony "dropped deeper" into Canada's clichés. And yet -- what was it saying? Perhaps it was only saying Canada is dominated by its geography, something uninteresting, something we've long known.

“If some countries have too much history, we have too much geography,” said former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in a speech to the House of Commons in 1936. This quotation comes from the Statistics Canada website, though David Solway attributes the same quote to John A. Macdonald in Director's Cut. It's also attributed to John A. here. (Quel fuck, man. Who knows?)

But there were those other elements, too. The "poem," k.d. lang singing Leonard Cohen, the First Nations dancers, the quotation from Who Has Seen the Wind?, the Martime fiddlers, including Ashley MacIsaac. Plus that segment about modern, urbanized Canada .... wait, um, I must have slept through that part. Did anyone else see a segment that represented Ontario? Is that what Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr were doing there?

Ah, but there's what Brown was talking about when he said Canada was "a place that has more collective interests that it does people to explain and reinforce them." I see, for example, that the federal Heritage Minister has joined the post-game commentary, asking why the ceremony didn't feature more French. (Celine Dion was too busy trying to have a baby, apparently. No joke.)

After the CGI-enhanced profundity, Canada returns to its absurdities.

Which brings us back to that "poem." If I wasn't moved by it, what did I find interesting?

First, I was intrigued that the ceremony would include such a direct statement that Canada is a nation that struggles to define itself, that it may well be a nation beyond definition, that perhaps the nation's central idea is we don't know who we are, but we are a work-in-progress. How different we are from our friends to the south, who speak of "American exceptionalism" and speak of "moving towards a perfect union." Canada, the Olympic ceremony said, is unfinished; it is a collection of parts that don't cohere.

Still, Shane Koyczan looked like a parody of Ginsberg, with his scraggly beard, glasses and black hat (not a beret, but very nearly). I enjoyed watching him, sure. He was entertaining, but his "poem," as a poem, wasn't good. It was full of what Solway calls "undistinguished diction and trivial infatuations." As a civic statement, however, Koyczan's performance played much better. His future in Canadian literature is clearly bright.

On the other hand, as Brown noted, "The trick is not to be earnest." Koyczan was, cloyingly so. Yes, we say please and thank you. We also invented the Blackberry; built up, then collapsed Nortel; have adulterous politicians and serial sex murderers (both archetypal degenerates have been making news here in Upper Canada of late).

The outlines of a conflict are emerging. It is the conflict for the nation's artistic soul. For while the Olympic opening ceremony was more than a typical "tourist pageant," and as a portrait of the nation's "collective interests" the CGI prairie, whales, northern lights, etc., "dropped deeper" into our clichés than we might have expected from such a public spectacle, in the end it was a "Song of Ourselves." A statement of powerful narcissism. A trip to a nuclear enhanced gift shop.

As popular entertainment, that is likely as good as it gets. What the ceremony also showed, however, is the end of the track of the narrative line Canada has been following post-Meech Lake. We can all be Canadians, this line says, as long as we all are different and allowed to follow our own ways. Our fractured minority federal parliament is another example. We are a country of powerful regional identities, bound by the practices of common courtesy. Down this road live increasing neuroses, which may be our fate. The Australian athlete was wrong, for example, too see in the ceremony "all Canadian culture." What was on display was simply most of our common tropes.

As noted earlier, I've been reading some of the crotchety critics published in the past decade by Porcupine's Quill. Three specific titles:
  • A Lover's Quarrel by Carmine Starnino
  • Director's Cut by David Solway
  • Ripostes by Philip Marchand
Each of these books, in its own way, reads against the "Canadian consensus." As the blurb on the back of Marchand's title says: "The tone is considered, and critical rather than celebratory, although the essays are respectful of the genuine achievements of Canadian literature in the past few decades. They try to clear the air, as it were, of boosterism, political correctness, and other attitudes which hinder the appreciation and reception of good writing."

Critical rather than celebratory. That's what I've been attempting here. Some folks, I know, think that these three critics are writing out of mean spirits. Others celebrate them because they have a keen ability to crush high flying reputations. Starnino takes down Susan Musgrave; Solway stab Al Purdy; Marchand argues that Margaret Laurence had an "uninteresting mind."

We will never be free of the narrative risks of our vast geography and our nation's regional nature. However, the war against cliché demands more than that we "drop deeper" into them. The opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics had numerous lovely and moving moments. As Brown said, it "used symbolism at an elevated level." It illuminated much of our present and our past. It demands a criticism equal to it, one that can open up the future.


Zach Wells revised take on the "poem" -- from his blog.

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