Saturday, August 9, 2008

Nice Show - Brand China?

Well, there were at least a couple of scintillating and opposed levels for watching the opening ceremonies. I'll have to go back to Hero for an understanding of the wired flights, but as with the title of that movie, they certainly signal individual and personal transcendance. Do they celebrate the individual or the collective? Are they invocations of the Western hero as star, as personal best, as consumer? Are they invocations of the Chinese hero as hao-han, self denying in service to the people and the leadership they deserve if perhaps don't have. Or can these be made into the same thing, or even have they always been? What might these games signify, and what are they meant to signify? Who is the champion, who the Olympian? Will it be the team count, racking up medals by collective will, or the summing of individual bests? Where are the true loyalties of the flag-bearers? Who do they represent? Whose show is it?

I didn't see any tears, although there may have been a few more than mine at home.

The cultural celebrations were practically in our face with shades of Maoist scary-to-the-West collectivism. Hints of Leni Riefenstahl for cinematic buffs. According to the sardonic American commentators, last-minute smiles were pasted on. So, is the individual's flight for personal salvation, personality transcendance toward genuine authenticity, representation of the masses behind him, or even the good of the people abstractly, as stewarded by the central walled-in authorities?

The smiles looked genuine, though, and didn't have that strained North Korea look. It was easy enough to imagine the army of performers having a home life and a shot at those transcendant flights. Overall, the TV viewer felt bad for the people on the ground, as it were, since much of the spectacle seemed designed for the aerial shots, with much of the stage set seemingly outside the Bird's Nest stadium. Of course the fireworks would be spectacular from anywhere on the ground, but they were coordinated with the display "inside", leaving only the TV viewer privileged. The commentators talked about the walls of China, including the one between the people and the powerful. Should the Nest be viewed in contrast to the Forbidden City, or is it more an echo?

I have to confess that I couldn't stay awake beyond the American showing during the march of nations, though happily I woke up this morning to a (second) rerun of the fantastic torch lighting. I confess to projected feelings of triumph, and remembered them from the days of shock and awe when we brought down Saddam's statue and I was happy to believe, because I wanted to believe, that GWB had been right all along. There would be roses stuck into the gun barrels and American flags waved in gratitude.

Not so much.

So, swept along as I was with happiness for China's triumphant great show, I did remind myself that I was rooting more for their flop, not wanting their triumphant re-entry onto the so-called world stage to overshadow their shovelling around of people to make it possible.

If this was cinema, it was flawed by the audience's compulsive looking beyond it, guided and a little bit goaded by the announcers, who rather did America proud for the moment with their unwillingness to just buy the whole show; even as they effused about its production values. Not so much that we wanted to know how the effects were being accomplished (the wires couldn't be airbrushed out for this live performance) instead of being taken in. More that we actually wanted to know what it might mean.

Surely American (or Euro) commercialism would never be up to this level of showmanship. This was not a branded and sponsored display. The garishness was beyond the superbowl sort. The pride was beyond technical polish, where the superstars trail their entire role of fame onto the stage and off, and the spectacles are perfected only, Star-Wars style, to transcend the previous ones and keep the illusion alive. The cutting edge in evidence.

This was beyond cutting edge. There were no flaws to either the technical or people-corps movements, except possibly a tiny one when the flying torch bearer was dropped more than eased to his side to run the scrim, and it looked for a split second as though he might have stumbled. But the people moved like machines, and the techno-effects were perfectly de-tuned to seem almost as though there weren't a computer behind them. This was surely meant to signal a triumph of the human over the machine and not the other way around, right?

That flying runner's stumble could be and was glossed over. What couldn't quite be glossed over was the actual death by maniac-stabbing of an American guest; one closely related to the Olympic delegation. The Olympic TV historian sheepishly offered an attribution, blame-the-media-style, to the nationalistic ramp-up of us vs. them competitiveness apparently sweeping the Chinese airwaves. So, this is like the killing of an abortion doctor, where one of the faithful takes the angry message a little too seriously, and you're not sure the message maker should be quite off the hook. Is this a sports competition, or is there something more ominous in the offing? No people are perfectly behaved. What hidden meaning is betrayed, and where?

The commentators quickly swept that suggestion aside, as being clearly too incendiary to follow. But it is, in essence, the ba question. The eight 888 as hegemony question. China has certainly out-performed Western corporatism. There is no way that the West, as Bob Costas kept reminding us, could ever match this display. "The opening ceremony trophy should be retired," I think he said. There is no way that even the distorted might of global corporations, our post-modern brand of uber-capitalism, can ever match the Chinese version of single-party ability not just to muster the several hundred million dollars required to put on the show (who knows what accounting standards were used to come up with that number?), but also to direct the military incarnations which China allows for its version of corporate power with global reach.

Surely, our own national accounting standards, which force private subscriptions even for the most sacred of national monuments, would never dare this level of shock and awe on the public ticket?

This was a display both of technological accomplishment and the power of collectives organized with military precision to orchestrate a display beyond the capacity of any other branded entity on the globe. Here in the West we also owe our technological accomplishements to military necessity. But we have generally, until Bush trumped up the excuse, geared up after the fact, and channeled our developments where possible through the universities, whose loyalties could be assumed by the justness of our government's aim. As much because of as despite the debates and differing opinions among the people about the governement's direction.

Is this the tipping point of our time? Not so much the question of where lies China's heart, but at least equally much what will be the nature of our response. Not just, have the Chinese been overwhelmed by nationalistic pride so much to ignore the ongoing exercise of power to quiet even loyal opposition (legalistically in Chinese terms - relating back to interpretations of the First Emperor ) but have we also been cowed by fear in this American context, so much to allow our university scientists to swap loyalties from "science" in its abstract best to the various national and corporate entities to whom they've sworn oaths and with whom they've signed pacts.

The question then is to whom or to what is loyalty rightly owed. Who is betrayed when fealty is granted to something less or other? "Go World" says the Visa ad ("the only card accepted at the Games"). Go self? Go People? Go Games? Go Abstraction (God? Science?)? Certainly it can't be go USA or go China, right? Well, I guess I hope it is just Go USA! and Go China! in the spirit of good sport.

For the moment, I'm going to credit Zhang Yimou with having rendered excellent entertainment, in the same way that he has in his cinematic productions (I suppose including the banned ones). Gratefully, I have neither the power or the knowledge to expose any double-meaning. In any case, it will always be up to the people at large to learn how to read, to watch, to exercise choice when it's available, and to demand it when it's taken away.

I cheer for the Chinese people. Great Show!

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