Olympian Cinematic: The screens in British hearts

It became swiftly obvious during the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games that the creative director of the showpiece, Danny Boyle understands the importance of cinema, the movies, to a nation hoping to finally craft a positive identity in the modern age.

In years gone by I was taught about Australian cinema by a remarkable lady, Cath Ellis, whose key text in beginning to understand Australia as a concept and as a nation was the opening ceremony from the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. I remember discussing the importance of self-image and identity as presented by one of these events, events that are seen and consumed by the world at large. The ceremony aims to present a potted history of the country via images, music and loads of people dancing.

The net was abuzz about the success of Friday’s ceremony but one thing that struck me was Boyle’s use of the moving image, the way he collated and coalesced the beauty of our national cinema into a series of triumphant moments giving a taste of our ability to capture our myriad society, to look inward and frown, laugh and cry at our own idiosyncrasies.

National pride isn’t something I feel on a regular basis, in recent times that has nearly dissipated further. I get behind the cricket team (perhaps a little too much) and I feel that as a nation of artists, writers and musicians we are leaders in many ways but otherwise a history of slave profiteering and undemocratic privilege is a tough sell to someone of my sensibilities. How amazing it is then, that I nearly punched the air when that parachute opened and the John Barry musical sting kicked in. Inspired, of course, by the incredible ski jump from The Spy Who Loved Me. That image, that music, the whole thing is scoured deep into my brain – James Bond is cool, he wins, he gets the girl and he kicks all kinds of arse (NOT ass) whilst he’s doing it and he’s ours. He’s the cipher of British cool and superiority and it’s very difficult for any Brit to not want to be him.

The family home section of the ceremony (one that raised the ire of several right wing morons) featured so many amazing selections of film that it was a dizzying homage to British life as represented on screen. Clips from Gregory’s Girl, Kes, Four Weddings and a snippet of that incomparable conversation at the start of A Matter of Life and Death. Each one showcasing some aspect of our nation’s life in a way that makes it seem hopeful and exciting. We might never achieve the beauty of Peter’s stiff upper lip attitude to death or Billy Casper’s temporary escape from his dark satanic mill – but we can aspire. We see reflections of ourselves and our best characteristics as a nation and as individuals. Watch Peter talking to June again and you realise how perfectly David Niven embodies everything good about the classical English gentleman. How could you not want to be that effortlessly cool?

Danny Boyle isn’t so singularly jingoistic to limit the scope of his use of cinema to that produced on our own isles of wonder. Britishness, like any set of national characteristics, bleeds across the increasingly globalised world. British talent is internationally known, talent like David Bowie, Mike Oldfield*and Charlie Chaplin. They might appear in American productions but their identity contains something fundamentally British and they deserved celebrating alongside our other treasures.

What a success like this proves to me, above anything else, is that cinema is a vibrant and essential part of our identity, as these images swirl and thrum around us they become part of our consciousness. It’s about this point that I could start talking about postmodernity and simulacra with some nods in the way of post-colonial identity. Whilst that might be helpful I’d rather keep this simple. Film is art, art that reflects us in all our good and all of our bad, art with power and art we can be proud of. In amongst the superb party Danny Boyle threw on Friday night he created a tapestry of texts that we can be proud of and, as odd a sensation as it is, I am.

 

*Playing Tubular Bells over images of kids on beds gave me a distinct Exorcist vibe.

 

I spotted references and clips from this lot, did I miss any really obvious ones? The Italian Job, the Exorcist, Harry Potter, Oliver, Chaplin, A Matter of Life and Death, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Wayne’s World, Billy Elliott, The Full Monty, Trainspotting, Rules of Attraction, Shrek, Lady and the Tramp, Planet of the Apes, Wall-E, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and obviously Chariots of Fire.

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