By Carter B. Horsley
Televised spectaculars have become clichés that usually are gaudy and garish, boring and pretty unbearable.
The Oscars, the Super Bowls and the Olympics are institutionalized pageants that are witnessed by hundreds of millions of people and while there are usually good highlights rarely have they been consistently awesome and inspiring.
The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, February 8, 2002, on NBC-TV, however, was nearly perfect and may well have been the greatest television program in history. Don Mischler was the executive producer of this stunning spectacle.
The Oscars usually are best known for outrageous fashions and good-natured ribbing, the Super Bowls for its commercials and the Olympics for elegant extravagance.
Over the past couple of decades, opening ceremonies for the Olympics have been quite impressive with elaborate choreography and fireworks interspersed between the traditional parade of participants, raising of the Olympic flag, and lighting of the Olympic torch.
This opening ceremony was awesomely artistic throughout its entire airing, which lasted almost three hours, with the exception of the participants' parade, the uninspired banter by the usually eloquent Bob Costas and his co-host, Katie Couric, who uttered only a few sentences, none of them of consequence or substance, and some brief post-torch-lighting interviews at the very end of the program.
The rest of the program, whose theme was "Light The Fire Within," was inspiring and in many parts spell-binding and magical.
Full of truly marvelous sequences and extraordinarily well orchestrated, there was clearly far more going on than could be recorded in real-time. Many of the sequences were quite brief in duration but extremely complex and magnificently executed.
If there was a fault, it was that too much was crammed into the program! Many of the segments were stunning, sensational and extremely memorable, not for sentimental but for artistic reasons. The production's choreography set new standards of the highest order. The most hard-core balletomane had to be awed and enchanted and the long program went off with nary a hitch.
Just about everything about this very lavish and very expensive production - the costumes, the props, the special effects, the fireworks - was great. Some reports estimated that the production itself cost more than $35 million and that security for the event, attended by President Bush, topped $300 million!
A long segment celebrating the heritage of Native-Americans was extremely well done. The performer's costumes were dazzling but very authentic in spirit, so much so that it captured the glorious cultural heritage of many different tribes with great sophistication and honor in the most respectful way since the great portrait artistry of George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Seth Eastman and Alfred Jacob Miller, the very great early 19th Century painter-documentarians of American Indians. The choreography was almost as brilliant as Michael Smuin's great ballet, "A Song for Dead Warriors," with the San Francisco Ballet Company and documentary about the capture of Alcatraz, which was broadcast in 1984 on PBS more than a decade ago in its Great Performances Dance in America series. What made this so outstanding was its use of the stadium's special field which consisted of a sinuous and huge skating rink, which was capable of quite incredible lighting and special effects, and the use of gigantic, animated puppets, combined with very imaginative and beautifully shimmering furling elements and surrealistic prop/costumes worn by skaters who transformed this magical field into a tableau of wondrous grace. Almost two decades ago John Curry elevated ice-skating from a sport into a new art form with gave his "dancers" new freedoms of expression and liberated dance from the restrictions of human athleticism. This long segment of the ceremony expanded that imagination in a quantum leap because of its scale and its indelible artistry, and, much more importantly, raised the artistic consciousness of millions of viewers.
Another long segment was a tribute to the multi-cultural "pioneers" of the American West and it too was very tastefully done and while its sanitized presentation of settlers avoided the gory conflicts with the Native Americans and gun-slinging its earnestness and huge cast also imbued the audience with the courage of those days of simple and hard-earned joys in the vastness of the American landscape. It, too, employed delightful puppetry to highlight the importance of the "Golden Spike" that made transcontinental train travel possible and the program was thematically tied together by an 13-year-old skater, Ryne Sanborn, who held a lantern and was inspired by a fire god and in another segment skaters glided about with huge sparkers/rockets on their skates and at the end the fire god skating the Olympic Rings rather than a figure eight and the rings exploded in fire in a phantasmogoric pyrotechnic sequence that even outdid the program's glorious fireworks.
The few speeches were on target as were the few musical star performances, including a duet by Sting and Yo-Yo-Ma. The arrival of the tattered American flag from the demolished World Trade Center in New York was an emotional highlight and the view of President Bush standing amidst the American athletes and being asked by one of the skaters to talk on her cell phone was unexpectedly delightful. The huge Olympic flag was carried into the Rice-Eccles Stadium by Steven Spielberg, John Glenn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Lech Walesa among others. The "surprise" of having the 1980 U. S. hockey team that scored one of the Olympics' great upsets, led by captain Mike Eruzione, fit well with the notion of American heroes and the spirit that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 could, and should, not deter the American way, although it was not, of course, as dramatic and memorable as Muhammed Ali's lighting the Olympic Cauldron in Atlanta in 1996.
In its own way, this extremely tasteful (in the best sense) program was a masterpiece as incredible as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel murals at the Vatican: it was overwhelming and very ennobling in its brilliance. It was an affirmation of honorable yearnings for global peace and the glory of humanity. It was stirring circumstance, not vacuous pomp.
Ceremonies and traditions are important and in an increasingly private world public events of this magnitude remind us of our communality and the simple fact that life is bigger than our personal experience and full of poential and special pleasures.
The aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks has been quite remarkable and has brought forth not only a resurgence of patriotism, but deep sympathy and respect for common valor and emotions. Coupled with the recent Enron scandal, the United States is undergoing a purging of its soul, a re-examination of its values.
This event shied away from supercilious seriousness.
This was not your typical rah-rah.
It was about joy and promise.
It was exhilarating.