So, what did you watch this weekend? I’m betting that, for many of you, it wasn’t anything in the cinema. By and large, US and UK distributors (and I expect many others besides) steered clear of the dark Olympic shadow, knowing that the biggest release of the week may have come from a major filmmaker, but it certainly wasn’t a movie. Given the scale of the occasion, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London 2012 Games would have been deemed appointment viewing even if he’d done little more than plonk One Direction on a stage to mime for three hours.
As it was, he did rather a lot more than that. So much more that viewing parties around the world — a greater total audience, one presumes, than has been enjoyed by all Boyle’s feature films combined — were left open-mouthed: some with bewilderment, some with delight, many more of us with both. Eschewing the kind of regimented, choreographed float-spectacle that is par for the course at such events — and was mastered pretty much to the point of unimprovability by Zhang Yimou at the 2008 Bejing Olympics — Boyle took a more avant-garde approach, wittily crafting an extravaganza that celebrated difficulty, damage and imperfection in place of the standard Olympic virtues of serenity and supremacy.
Astonishing rising smokestacks shattered verdant fields, sickly children were tended to by inelegantly terpsichorean nurses, the storybook figures of their nightmares met by a marauding army of Mary Poppinses. Bumbling comedians ruined orchestra recitals, lovestruck kids negotiated the pitfalls of modern communication, while a stoic awareness of loss — from the soldiers of WWI to the ill-fated commuters of 7/7 — tied down its more euphoric pop highs. When East End rapper Dizzee Rascal popped up at one point to yell his famed lyric, “Some people think I’m bonkers, I just think I’m free,” he may as well have been speaking for the entire show.
Some might have found its rhythmic and thematic transitions disorienting, its grab-bag of remixed historical, literary and cultural reference points chaotic, but Boyle and writer Frank Cotrell Boyce’s point rather seemed to me that Britain has long thrived on chaos, and continues to do so. Cheering Britain as a kind of gleaming global nonpareil would have been tactless, given the country’s spotty imperialist history — even the Queen was lowered from her perch with that cheeky 007 gag. (Meanwhile, I appreciate that a left-field tribute to the country’s free national healthcare service, directly in the face of a craven Conservative government currently cutting it down at the knees, might not have registered with international viewers, but its moxie was much appreciated here.)
Constructing the show around Britain’s eccentricity, her humor and her mend-and-make-do resilience was a wiser and more arresting route, one perfectly suited to Boyle’s fizzy sensibility. Boyle’s never been a tidy filmmaker, and hiring him to do a fluttery, large-scale Cirque du Soleil ballet would have been pointless — though he still knows how to slather on the sound (Underworld’s musical contribution was a particular wow) and the pyrotechnics, as the dazzling forging of the rings and flame-lighting finale so deftly demonstrated.
All of which to say that while the ceremony wasn’t for everyone, that’s precisely what I liked about it: as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei astutely remarked in his review, “It didn’t pretend it was trying to have global appeal… Because Britain has self-confidence, it doesn’t need a monumental Olympics.” Bar a few tweaks here and there (the “Frankie and June” segment, with its naff onscreen SMS bubbles, was overlong and narratively fuzzy), it’s the most enchanting and invigorating Olympic opener I can remember. (Which is to go, admittedly, only as far back as Seoul 1988.) From a city that couldn’t even cobble together a presentable logo or appealing mascots for this year’s Games, that came as a delightful surprise.
I won’t say the next thought occurred to me during the festivities themselves themselves — I was too punch-drunk and, well, otherwise drunk for that — but as I replayed it in my mind the next morning, it became overwhelmingly clear to me: Danny Boyle is the man to produce the Academy Awards ceremony.
On the surface of it, that’s an illogical conclusion to draw: they may share the umbrella term “ceremony,” but the Academy Awards and the Olympic curtain-raiser are so vastly dispatate in scale, structure, environment and purpose that to equate handling one to the other is akin to saying Ellen DeGeneres should run CNN. But the idiosyncratic virtues that Boyle brought to the Olympics — his artful balance of stateliness and silliness, artifice and intimacy, the formal and the fantastic, and his fleet-footed alternation between these modes — are ones that could also benefit the Oscars, scaled down vastly to the confines of an indoor theater. (An arena, incidentally, that Boyle has already enlivened with typical cinematic brio in his inventive, award-winning stage production of “Frankenstein” — he’s an eagerly adaptable artist.)
Imagine, for example, the Oscars’ customary In Memoriam section treated with the hushed, expansive dignity that Boyle and singer Emeli Sande brought to the “Abide With Me” number at the opening. Or Boyle’s flexible multimedia projections applied to the Academy’s ubiquitous film montages. Or that Mr. Bean orchestra sketch playing out with Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler as Bill Conti’s troupe attempts to play the nominated scores. Obviously, none of these ideas could or should be transferred directly to the Oscars (though I personally wouldn’t mind seeing the Kodak stage inundated with a murder of Poppinses) but they’re plausible examples of the kind of sequences Boyle could dream up for the smaller ceremony — celluloid in spirit, but backed by a keen calculation of stage practicality and television potential.
In recent years, the Academy Awards telecast has missed the mark either by attempting too cosy a supper-club vibe or too rushed and glib a variety-show routine, neither approach nailing the contemporary tone AMPAS have been striving for. With his one-off extravaganza on Friday, Boyle demonstrated that it is possible to meld crowdpleasing fireworks (literally so) with hip 21st-century irony without undermining the tradition that underpins that whole enterprise.
Finally, as a filmmaker — an Oscar-winning, in-the-club one at that — there could be no one with a greater affinity for the medium being celebrated, and the talent doing the celebrating. All that, and with more visual and sonic flair than Adam Shankman and Brett Ratner multiplied by each other. God knows if he’d want the job — rescuing the Oscars might seem too small a fish to fry after his Olympic triumph — but as of this week, Danny Boyle should go to the top of the Academy’s wishlist.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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