Feb 8, 2014

Channel Surfing: The Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.

There is something unparalleled about the Olympics compared to most any other sport for me. Maybe it comes with the sense that all sports are at its core a turf war. People from opposing cities come to play and end up causing riots, and that is if their team won. There are a lot of politics and reasoning in sports that I don't care to understand largely because they all seem like equally qualified teams to me. I suppose that the Olympics are a case in which I am able to look at a broader picture. This is a chance in which the best athletes from each country are sent out to compete for the top prize against each other. There are narratives to be built and most of all, there is a sense of nationalism that comes with each time. 
Then there is the home teams. Where 2012 saw London, England give us a ceremony that was practically an acid trip mixed with so much pop culture references, it was a wonder what would happen in Russia. There have been countless questions on how the Sochi Olympics would go on the sole basis that  Russia isn't quite the greatest country in terms of progressive politics. In recent years, they have even arrested the punk band Pussy Riot for performing in a mosque, and no other reason. While it is true that their protest could be seen as unlawful, it does show how strict things are.
For the most part, Russia's biggest battle on a nationwide scale is to avoid looking homophobic. Their viewpoints aren't quite as complex as western culture. Their notable take down in this ceremony is that they are opposed to the spreading of homosexual culture to their country. They wish to not encourage it and as a result, there has been a sense of hostility that has come with it. President Vladimir Putin even has become a haunting power that is promising to try and show Russia as this hospitable country. This is most evident in their opening ceremony.
If there is one issue not with the ceremony, but with the way that American network NBC chose to show it, it is in their execution. The pre-game show involving a performance by faux-lesbian duo t.A.T.u. was cut from American broadcasting. Since I saw the California (PST) version, I will only comment from here on out in regards to this structure. Instead, we were met with 30 minutes of "pre-game" coverage involving commentator Bob Costas talking everything and anything about the country, specifically how Russia isn't quite as progressive as America. To say the least, we lost a lot, even if you do not like t.A.T.u. and the videos of their performance remain unavailable online.

If to provide merely a broad view of the opening ceremony, it would be that for the most part it was a success. It could be because it was the most expensive opening ceremony to date. It worked, even if on a propaganda scale. It relied heavily on painting Russian culture as something wonderful. Through the numerous segments, it delved into the industrial revolution, the building of their architecture, ballet and all under the banner thesis that Russia is a land full of dreamers. The colorful, vibrant visuals were sure impressive and there were moments were the excessive qualities showed the blend well enough. However, at its heart, there was a sense that Russia is a land of "dreamers," but they are also perfectionists who are clinical and cold in their execution. They have impressive skills, but their performance outweighs the emotional responses given.
There's even a sense that the ceremony was hard to really establish from the beginning. In an impressive montage that paid tribute to iconic director Sergei Eisenstein, they mentioned several iconic Russian figures, including notable authors like Dostoevsky and Nabokov as well as composers such as Tchaikovsky. These were all impressive people who did great cultural things and make Russia a noteworthy place. The only jarring thing that springs from this is that most of their cultural highlights stopped quite some time ago.
As mentioned earlier, t.A.T.u. performed at the pre-game show. If you add in the political climate, this makes absolutely no sense. However, there was a legitimate reason: they are the most recognizable Russian music export to the world. This may not be true for its entirety, but they are their last notable export at very least. This is where things get sticky: t.A.T.u. are best known for their song "All the Things She Said," which would be performed with the two female singers kissing at the end of the song. If this isn't an issue, the fact is that this song came out in 2002. Even in terms of relevance, the music hasn't been that successful. The ceremony even seemed to make a point about this by featuring an entire dance performance revolving around western culture being imported.

This isn't to say that Russian culture has died otherwise. It just immigrated before it got recognized. Consider comedians such as Eugene Mirman or the more widely known Yakov Smirnoff. Both are Russian descendants, yet they probably didn't get involved either due to lack of popularity or political reasons (or both). Then again, with the way that things are going, Russia probably doesn't want to recognize a comedian who released an album called "God is a Twelve-Year-Old Boy with Asperger's." 

The ceremony itself managed to be an impressive sight. With segments that pushed the boundaries of technological achievements and artistic movement, it celebrated the culture in impressive ways. It was colorful and full of life. However, because of the country's stance on gay culture, it did make a lot of the serious nature harder to swallow. From the bright buildings that made up Moscow to a ballet sequence set to the famous compositions by homosexual Tchaikovsky, it makes less sense why the country is so closeted. It clearly uses its gays to create some of its most memorable culture. Maybe the irony of feminine actions or hyper masculinity has yet to be seen as funny over there, but it did make the smiling faces seems more queer and repressed. Why doesn't this country embrace essentially half of the things that it is proud of? It makes no sense.
And the backlash could have come from the decision of the varying countries to wear bright colors. This may be intentional or not, but most of the countries sported vibrant colors that stood out as being joyful. Germany tried to set the precedent by having uniforms that were rainbow, but came off more as a meshed pattern of colors. It seemed defiant. To see president Putin wave from his balcony seat was equally strange, notably because he never stopped looking miserable. Maybe he was too obsessed with convincing the world that he was a nice guy. Only time will tell how likely that is, and chances are that by this publication, it will not be true.
If there is one thing that makes the Russians and the "Dreamers" concept hard to swallow, it is the layout of the ceremony. While there wasn't a lack of spectacle and very few glitches, it felt disjointed. Whereas past ceremonies saw the entrance of the athletes come towards the end, this was changed up with them walking in midway through the show. They did an hour of theatrics followed by the procession only to go back to more segments highlighting their achievements. An awful lot was also set to Tchaikovsky, which began seeming like their only music option.
By the end, the big question is on whether it gave us the right impression of Russia. I believe that it did its best, even though it does feel like a problematic, repressed nation overall if you take in outer context. Judging by the production, they set out to impress and did just that. There are moments where despite being ignorant to Russian history, I was able to enjoy what was going on. True, I left wondering why gay culture wasn't more respected in a practically gay ceremony, but that is to bring outside politics into this. 
Though it must be noted that maybe Russia does have its heart in the wrong places. The massive stadium in which this took place was erected solely for the opening and closing ceremony. Putin has been on a quest to prove that he is able to pull this off. People have even banned supporting the Olympics in general because of Russian viewpoints. I cannot claim to understand a single thing about this confusing landscape, but I do look forward to watching opposing countries compete for top prizes and see as new winners are created in the narrative. 

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