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about the author

Dr. Nathan Carroll is Assistant Professor of Communication, Theatre, and Art at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN. He designs and teaches courses in Film Studies and has published in The Velvet Light Trap and The Moving Image. His research interests include the effects of digitalization on cinema, aesthetic issues in archiving, and postmodern concerns about the role of absence in artistic forms.

Double Exposure:

Framing the Athletes of Marx & Coca-Cola at the Beijing Opening Ceremony

Nathan Carroll, Ph.D.

How, in less than twenty years, does a place go from mowing down student dissent with tanks to offering unconditional hugs? Was this a front, or had the government realized that the patois of mushy togetherness is now a lingua franca, not least in commercials, and thus well worth acquiring?1

– Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

The 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in China stretched the boundaries of sport spectacle as it intersects with concepts of digital consumption. At stake is the future of cinema in the sense of delimiting what properly counts as “cinematic.” Politics and sports collided in front of a global audience that reached over one-third of the world’s population.2 In China alone, over eight hundred forty million people tuned in.3 At the helm was Zhang Yimou, an internationally renowned director who has professionally evolved from a personal and political filmmaker with films like Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990), and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) to the standard bearer of colorfully epic fluid spectacles like Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).4 With an estimated cast of fifteen thousand individuals and budget of three hundred million dollars the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony proved to be a global cinematic event produced in high definition and distributed digitally – if not always exhibited digitally – to billions of viewers. It would be hard to imagine a movie released by a major studio with more at stake politically in its successful reception. With a wealth of resources at his disposal, Zhang Yimou crafted a monumental performative cinematic event that incorporated both live and pre-recorded elements into its televisual presentation.

The epic stylized narrative told a story about the history of China unfolding as a scroll finally embracing the world completely in its Olympic hope of “One World, One Dream.” Seemingly part world-hugging Disney magic, the ceremony also evoked Walter Benjamin’s dictum that communism responds to the aestheticization of war by politicizing art.5 Zhang Yimou’s massive story was further inflected by NBC’s running commentary track. Eastern-gazing Orientalist stereotypes about masses of bodies mobilized to precise artistic and, by extension, militaristic perfection contributed to the overall sublime aesthetic presentation even if NBC’s vision differed markedly from the auteur’s intent.

If Zhang Yimou’s intention was to invoke the sublime aesthetic through wonder, awe, and feelings of universal respect, as might be suspected from his interpretation of the “One World, One Dream” theme, this would align his philosophy of the sublime most closely with Immanuel Kant’s classical definition.6 In Kant’s version of the sublime, overwhelming natural events like erupting volcanoes and the starry night send the imagination reeling forcing one to refer the overwhelming spectacular perception to the faculty of reason. In logically comprehending what we cannot fully apprehend with our imagination, we are reminded of our binding universal humanity through our shared capacity to reason. Since peace is a categorical imperative in our universal best interest, Zhang’s sublime vision bears a strong resemblance to Kant’s definition even if it is not a “natural” spectacle. However, for NBC’s American audiences, the ceremony also suggested Edmund Burke’s classic definition of sublime affect as psychologically productive of an overwhelming feeling of “negative pleasure.”7 In Burke’s case, our aesthetic distance from overpowering spectacles brings the pleasure of safety mixed with fear of the unknown. Yet, in a postmodern sense, NBC’s re-presentation with Western ads and running commentary was even more in line with writers like Jean-François Lyotard,8 David E. Nye,9 and Slavoj Zizek.10 While each account has significant differences, each considers the sublime effects of spectacular capitalist consumption in their own way. In these updated versions, touristic spectacles are critiqued as mediated by technological and capitalist practices that only appear to strip away differences between self and other. Nye, for example, argues that we are fascinated by everything alien if only to subordinate these experiences of difference to our aesthetic, political, and economic interests. He believes that, while the traditional notion of the sublime is built on the failure of adequate representation for concepts like infinity, the consumer sublime is based on the illusion of positive success. For these writers, the illusion of knowledge of the other afforded through spectacles like the Beijing ceremony makes the act of consumption itself sublime. Consumption of the other’s image through spectacle becomes a means to overcompensate for the irreconcilable differences between self and other, the East and the West.

Contributing to this complex sublime effect in Beijing was the method of event narration. The live cultural translation of this cinematic spectacle for American television audiences was supplied by a trio of NBC men: the inimitable Bob Costas, the technologically obsessed everyman Matt Lauer from The Today Show, and NBC’s China analyst for all things local, and enigmatic Joshua Cooper Ramo. In the parlance of Olympic-speak, the cumulative effect of this commentary track was the simultaneous inflation and placation of xenophobic paranoia through hypocritical inferences of “cultural doping.” The formal strategies NBC used to critique the Chinese ceremony as aesthetically deceptive while concurrently re-framing the event for American audiences can be called anaesthetic tactics. By “anaesthetic” I mean that spectacle was used as a diversionary means to impart other messages – by both China and NBC. If China aimed to make the world feel good about communism, then NBC aimed to maximize feelings of sublime awe while simultaneously exposing the nature and function of the Chinese spectacle. In doing so, NBC created their own cinematic spectacle: a new cut with different messages. By numbing us with large numbers and a sense of awe at this spectacle of Chinese propaganda it becomes easier to distract viewers while other Western propaganda messages are being sent.

For NBC, the vocalized fear that we might be lulled into political gullibility through cinematic devices was coupled with the rhetoric of apparatus transparency. Lauer and Costas’ sublime astonishment at the dynamic and overwhelming resources involved were mixed with an autodidactic need to explain it all away by giving us the “how it was done” behind- the-scenes narrative through line. By diminishing Zhang Yimou’s cinematic mastery through dubbed direct address, the impact was to ameliorate and metaphorically downconvert the digitally encoded Chinese spectacle into stock xenophobic terms Americans would absorb and understand. Consequently, by exposing the cinematic apparatus and reducing the Chinese narrative for American consumption, it is argued here that NBC produced its own form of cultural doping. The dialogic gaze by Zhang and NBC sought to frame and reframe a singular cinematic event for transnational audiences. This aesthetic clash created a battle of interpretive strategies through a “double exposure” – superimposing mixed media and messages. Narrative downconversion of local events for foreign audiences and foreign events for local target audiences requires aesthetic compression. Yet, as we know from HD technology, digital compression always produces distorting artifacts. The Olympic opening ceremony was no exception in this regard.

One of the symptoms of a cinematic event so large and overdetermined by competing narratives is the fracturing of the whole into polysemic vectors of meaning. Especially malleable through the ease of digital editing, the means of production, distribution, and exhibition for the opening ceremony were all significantly altered depending on the audience. In terms of examining the future of cinematic presentation within the context of a global digital marketplace, the ability to target and reorganize the manifest content of spectacle and narrative in response to culturally diverse audience demands signals a pivotal shift in what we mean by cinematic. Denaturing the artifact is not only par for the course – it is the true capital gain of the event. While the designed spectacle may have been “one dream,” the director’s cut was usurped by producers’ edits for maximum focused consumption. Western digestion of Zhang’s epic nationalist movie was guided by the digital differences in the received products. What then are we to make of these competing versions? We can begin by breaking down key aesthetic differences, if not always the cultural barriers (?), noting impactful rhetoric employed on both sides of the Pacific.11

On September 19, 2008, less than one month after the end of the Beijing Olympic Games, the Chinese government released a two-DVD region-free PAL set distributed through CITVC (China International TV Corporation).12 This release featured the opening ceremony broadcast as shown on China National TV (CCTV), and is an officially licensed product of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). With English friendly packaging, this PAL format DVD is playable on Western computers since it is coded Region Free or Region 0. In this sense at least, the CCTV DVD set employs an open door cross-cultural policy. Somewhat problematically, the CCTV commentary by a young pair of announcers in Mandarin is unsubtitled although the audio track is optional. Without the track selected, the English narration is limited to the in-stadium English announcements that add little meaningful description. Still, it is refreshing to watch the event without commentators brokering our understanding of the ceremony. This CCTV version stands in marked contrast in a number of ways to the three major forms of the event released by NBC for American audiences: the broadcast event, the NBC official DVD release, and the Video on Demand highlights reel. Each of these digital versions will be discussed in turn and compared with the official Chinese DVD release.

I. The Movie America Saw

The first digital format to reach American viewers was the delayed real-time event as first broadcast on NBC. It was shown twelve hours later in the eastern U.S. after the ceremony actually occurred in Beijing on August 8, 2008 at 8 pm. This version, reaching 34.2 million Americans, included two opening pre-recorded segments, local and national advertising breaks, and a closing wrap-up by NBC commentators.13 In addition, the use of commercial advertising to sponsor the NBC broadcast meant certain portions of the ceremony were edited out that are present on the CCTV DVD set. This NBC producers’ cut in effect results in the creation of deleted scenes. Further, the camera angles and types of shots used by the two production companies are in many ways similar but ostensibly different. The NBC version employs more fluid camerawork with frequently different shot choices; the NBC cameras are always moving and panning, swooping and re-framing. By contrast, the CCTV DVD uses more static set-ups and ideal angles. The camera is less distracted and distracting although more shots exist of exuberant crowds and Chinese officials. Counterintuitively, it actually seems easier to understand what is happening in the CCTV version without NBC’s interference.

What makes this live television event cinematic? We can list reasons, but ultimately the term is slippery and performative. Of course, Zhang Yimou is a film director and was hired for this reason. The massive scale of the opening ceremony and high tech mise-en-scène also come into play. Ultimately however, we may simply decide it is a narrative matter referring to the cinematic rhetoric used by NBC commentators. The filmic language is ubiquitous, and even if the event is not properly “cinematic” per se, NBC went to great trouble to frame it as such.

From the broadcast’s introduction, Jim Lampley notes how the opening ceremony is “a show fashioned to be a spectacle without equal in Olympic history. Fifteen thousand cast members in a futuristic production that exceeds even the most lavish of Hollywood blockbusters.” As the ceremony is about to begin, Bob Costas adds, “Eleven thousand athletes; …fifteen thousand performers; a three hundred million dollar production. Ten times what Athens spent four years ago, and it’s in the hands of Zhang Yimou, who is the most esteemed film director in China. We’re about to see what happens when an artist gets nearly unlimited resources. It’s almost a cinematic presentation playing out in real time.” Matt Lauer later reiterates this sentiment during a precisely choreographed segment featuring undulating blocks saying, “I think you said it so well Bob earlier; this is Zhang Yimou creating a cinematic blockbuster in real time on the floor of a stage.” However, the cinematic elements of this television event were precisely what stirred so much controversy.

One of the most controversial moments to emerge after the fact was the discovery that the apparently live ceremony segment consisting of twenty-nine footsteps sequentially outlined in fireworks leading up to the Bird’s Nest stadium was digitally produced and pre-recorded. The digital effects were superimposed over live fireworks to give a clean result that would have been difficult to grasp or aesthetically appreciate had we seen a live helicopter shot. Instead the helicopter aerial shot was simulated with a slight camera shake added. The goal was to make it seem as live as possible.14 This cinematic magic trick was deemed by many as a sign of deception or cultural doping on the part of the Chinese.15 Yet, as you will see from the following comments, this cinematic trickery was alluded to, if obliquely, by Lauer and Costas.16


This controversy over digital fakery largely stems from the fact that the Chinese are using a cinematic device for a televisual event. The implication is that if the Chinese are tricking us here, then what else are they hiding? However, these accusations of cultural doping extended throughout the Beijing games, mostly disturbingly toward issues involving female children. They included the cute little girl who lip-synched, “Ode to the Motherland” in order to replace another girl deemed too unphotogenic for broadcast, and expanded to unproven allegations about the Chinese female gymnasts who to Western eyes looked too young to play the part of sixteen year olds. However, from twelve year old Brooke Shields starring in Pretty Baby to fourteen year old Q’orianka Kilcher as the sexual Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World, the controversial use of age appropriate actors for roles deemed too adult and socially mature for children has been with cinema for ages. Similarly, ADR dubbing has also been a commonplace cinematic practice. In all, these controversies raise questions as much about the clash between mediums (digital cinema versus a “live” [twelve hour delayed and edited] television sporting event) as between the clash of cultural values (Chinese-Eastern versus American-Western).

Although cinema may be our guiding aesthetic framework for interpreting this ceremonial spectacle, a countervailing rhetorical motif in the NBC broadcast involves exposing the same cinematic apparatus. This includes a programmatic agenda of technological demystification, much like those TV specials where the masked magician unveils how the great magic tricks are actually performed. In this regard, our masked magician is world traveler Matt Lauer, whose sole purpose it seems is to explain to the average television viewer back in the United States “how this is actually done.” Commenting on a on a giant unfolding digital scroll Lauer adds:

Later, referring to the impressive moving blocks which imitated everything from the Chinese symbol of harmony to the Great Wall of China, Lauer concludes, “And how’d they do it? They did it with people. Not computers, not hydraulics – people. It’s unbelievable.” Costas adds: “Jaw dropping. Don’t go away; why would you?” What is perhaps most interesting about their comments is how technological demystification is replaced by an emphasis on resources and the massive labor face. Yet, the effect is still sublime – “unbelievable” and “jaw dropping” – but in a way that refocuses our astonishment on the ability of the Chinese to harness such immense resources in controlled precise movements. As Costas states elsewhere, “And time after time, and we’ve seen it in this opening ceremony already, massive scope, minute precision.”

This sublime astonishment invoked by NBC commentary depends on this rhetorical duality of harmonizing the “massive” with the “minute.” The implication is that such harmony runs counter to Western spectacles which operate on the aesthetic presumption that massive scope equals massive chaos. Indeed, we need only think of Super Bowl halftime shows, holiday parades, or any version of Woodstock as evidence. The negative part of the “negative pleasure” in Burke’s notion of the sublime then would derive from America’s cultural insecurity in the inability to enforce discipline and control when needed. In a military context this lack of precision could prove particularly threatening to feelings of national security. As Lauer states at one point in the ceremony, “Normally [when] you see something on this scale, Bob, you see wires being pulled, people directing the masses, telling them where to go; none of that. They seem to know this cold.” Hence, Chinese national pride translates into sublime Western xenophobia. Laying bare the cinematic apparatus both plays to and assuages the same fears.

This spectacular cinematic technology is narratively coupled with an equally spectacular focus on Chinese history. This seems to be Zhang’s primary take on the event as he attempts to produce an aesthetic scope equal to the grandeur of his nation’s past. Take for example the following exchange between Lauer, Costas, and China analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo that focuses on the large projection screen lining the upper part of the stadium. Later, athlete Li Ning was hoisted on wires and laterally inverted to appear to run horizontally around the screen en route to lighting the Olympic cauldron. Earlier, this same screen was used to extend the cinematic spectacle from the LED screen in the stadium floor to the firework footprints overhead. The idea incorporated the crowd into a vertically oriented spectacle without borders:

The above exchange highlights many of the underlying tensions present in the NBC broadcast commentary. The language of large numbers and massive spectacle is used here to convey the epic history of a country with a staggering population and apparently unlimited resources. The subtext is, “How can America compete with China?” Once again, we also witness NBC’s investment in exposing the cinematic apparatus. A cinematic vision from a film auteur is used to create not merely an expendable back-lot set but a permanent industrial fixture with cultural and historical significance. Like a modern version of the Great Wall it will take on symbolic value to represent the moment when China joined the world stage at a new level of intercultural rapport. Lastly, as spectators we marvel not only at the giant digital LED screen that unrolls across the floor of the Bird’s Nest but also at the giant analog scrim that unfurls around the top of the stadium. Not only do cinema and television collide, but analog and digital worlds combine; sports and politics mix; the future and the past come together; the East and the West meet through sports and spectacle. In this way, the futures of cinematic and televisual mediums are interwoven. This marriage of opposites, as Cooper Ramo suggests in the commentary, is a central theme for the ceremony integral to understanding the Chinese Olympic theme, “One World, One Dream.”18 Out of contradictions we recognize similarities. This cross-cultural version of harmony does not necessarily presume unity. Reframed by NBC, this motto is further revised to read, “One World, Two Dreams.” Yet, at its most xenophobic, the NBC broadcast suggests an even more cumbersome paraphrase, “Two Alien Worlds, One Dream of Ownership.”

In fact a key sublime element of the NBC broadcast was the painting of this cross-cultural spectacle as an alien event. Repeatedly, the 1969 lunar landing was suggested both through specific references in NBC commentary as well as Zhang Yimou’s presentation.

This language of space exploration was eventually tied to the simulated spacewalk of three hovering Chinese taikonauts in the last part of the artistic segment. These images were informed by the knowledge that the Chinese government aimed to compete as a latecomer in the space race by placing astronauts on the moon by 2024. As China looked to the future, NBC evoked the China of the past.

Cooper Ramo: Well there are three of them and that is how many astronauts, taikonauts, as the Chinese call them, they have put into space. China with a plan to put a man on the moon by 2024. But a moment of tremendous national pride when the first astronauts went into space a couple of years ago. [A globe emerges from the floor with people attached who will run around it in all directions as the music swells.]

In fact, on September 28, 2008, slightly over one week after CCTV released the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony DVD, three taikonauts returned safely from orbit after completing China’s first spacewalk.19 But to hear NBC tell the story, China culturally accomplished this spacewalk over a month earlier. Certainly the very first moments of the NBC broadcast were rife with such conversation. Two opening segments, one a generic awe-inspiring introduction to the Beijing Olympics, the other a politically invested historical narrative supplied by iconic NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, prepped the American audience for the opening ceremony to come. Our very first image as Americans of the Beijing Games was a digitally painted window opening up onto a Chinese landscape and settling on the face of a young Chinese girl. The images in this segment were largely of athletes, but the rhetoric used provokes double entendres about the political future of China. The following narration is part of the first NBC introduction:

Juxtaposed with images of Chinese citizens as well as athletes, the above narration grows suspiciously ambiguous with respect to which people are the referents. The latter part beginning with “they’ve submitted…” one may take as clearly referring to the athletes. Yet, the language “they’ve” is so notably generic and so close to the previous remarks about Chinese history that if one looked away from the screen images of athletes, one could legitimately wonder who is being talked about. That is to say, one might wonder whether comments about repetitive motion and polished technique refer to an Orientalist racially motivated perspective aimed toward the Chinese people instead of Olympic athletes. “Why did they begin? Why do they endure?” This language is equally at home conjuring awe for Olympic athletes as it is in deploying Oriental stereotypes toward the host country.20

Following up on his own pre-recorded video segment depicting Ping Pong Diplomacy in the Nixon era and the recent political history of China including the 1989 student protests at Tiananmen Square, Tom Brokaw continues the cinematic narrative of space exploration with the following remarks spoken to event host Jim Lampley:

Foreshadowing the spectacle to come, Brokaw links the space narrative to the cultural politics of the recent past. The allegation is that of likely cultural doping. Through diversionary spectacle, or using what I am calling anaesthetic strategies, the fear is that China will slip something unexpected by us as spectators and thus gain an upper hand. Brokaw’s mixed metaphor of the moon landing and the hokey-pokey speaks toward his folksy rhetorical style based on a pragmatic “wait and see” approach. His worldview is also clearly imbued with heavy-handed time-worn skepticism. At base, Brokaw suggests a political dance where we can never really be sure if we are being asked to observe or follow, or are we instead merely being duped into thinking we are leading?

The sense was conveyed that the Chinese were finally joining the rest of the world in the culture of modernity. The Beijing Olympics was painted as the Chinese equivalent of landing on the moon – a science-fiction fantasy and a coming-out party of sorts. The alien world that was landed on was Earth itself, and the party joined was that of transnational capitalist culture. As Costas said at one point, “This is, no exaggeration, by overwhelming consensus, the single most significant moment in the history of modern China.” It was as if by hosting the Olympic Games, China was beginning to see the fruits of capitalist culture, if not yet democracy. Brokaw suggests that the global spectacle of capitalist-infused competition might prove to be a step toward democratic values. This idea has been at the core of United States-Chinese relations since Nixon and increasingly so since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.21 With economic and political tensions as dynamic and tenuous as they are, cultural events like the Olympics provide a fruitful venue to nurture political connections that maintain the appearance of peaceful productive synergies.

No single event in the Beijing opening ceremony crystallized the underlying tensions between Chinese and American cultural values as much as the controversy over Lin Miaoka, the interminably cute little girl who lip-synched her way through “Ode to the Motherland” (alternately referred to by NBC as “A Hymn to My Country”). Unlike the fireworks controversy, which one could easily laugh off, the idea that the actual singer, Yang Peiyi, had been visually replaced by a prettier girl, provoked strongly indignant reactions.22 At stake was the aesthetic concept of beauty itself. What does it mean to be beautiful enough to promote internationally? In addition, we see the repeated if heightened fear about cultural doping through anaesthetic strategies – diversionary spectacles – that reached fruition later in the Olympics with the gymnastics age controversy. It is especially striking how both scandals concern issues about female children’s bodies. Whereas the young boy who survived the Sichuan Province earthquake, Lin Hao, was literally held up in the opening ceremony as the model of authentic Chinese heroic innocence, girls’ bodies were especially problematized during the Olympic Games within the framework of lying about voice or age. Yet the implications went even further. If we cannot believe China about these issues, how can we believe anything they say? So, what were the Chinese reasons for this image substitution?

Chen Qigang, musical director of the ceremony, said the song was not actually sung by Lin, who has been christened the “Smiling Angel,” but by Yang Peiyi, also aged seven. He said Lin had been chosen ahead of the more gifted singer because she was prettier. "The reason for this is that we must put our country’s interest first,” Mr. Chen told Beijing Radio. “The girl appearing on the picture must be flawless in terms of her facial expression and the great feeling she can give to people. We had to make that choice. It was fair to [both girls]. We combined the perfect voice and the perfect performance.”23 Further, if we take a cinematic perspective, beautiful faces have been synched to different beautiful voices literally from the birth of the sound era. Although this substitution is a dubious ethical choice for an Olympics opening ceremony, given the cinematic profession of the director and the sheer magnitude of the spectacle, the Western reaction feels overly self-righteous and somewhat hypocritical.

Regardless of American reaction to this voice-body switch, it is worth pointing out that the West had its own share of lip-synch scandals. The indignant response is the same. How could they lie to us like that? Further, if we take a cinematic perspective, beautiful faces have been synched to different beautiful voices literally from the birth of the sound era. This substitution is a dubious ethical choice for an Olympics opening ceremony, given the cinematic profession of the director and the sheer magnitude of the spectacle.

Interestingly enough, although NBC commentators seemed aware of the digital fireworks manipulations, they did not appear to know about the Lin Miaoka/Yang Peiyi voice substitution. Also, the context of the song within the ceremony is worth noting; it captured some of the most politically charged moments of the night . The NBC commentary follows as the event occurred.

The shot of President Bush chatting with Vladimir Putin (the same day Russia invaded Georgia) does not appear on the CCTV DVD.
Along with the image of Hu Jintao, the Chinese DVD also shows close-ups of the cheering stadium crowd absent from the NBC version.

Dissolves are the favored transition device during this NBC broadcast segment which, along with the constantly fluid camera and myriad of angles, give a sense of omniscient and omnipotent cinematic direction.

A few other noteworthy controversies occurred during this segment beyond the lip-synching. For instance, the fifty-six costumed children mentioned by Costas were intended to represent different ethnic minorities, but they were actually played by children from the Han Chinese ethnic majority.24 In addition, the troops marching next to the children overtly broached the notion of Chinese militarism. On NBC, this image was intercut with President Bush chatting with Vladimir Putin. In an on-air interview with Bob Costas later in the Olympic Games, Costas asked Bush about his conversation with Putin at that moment. The President expressed that he was discussing in hard-line terms America’s opposition to what it deemed an unbalanced response to the Georgian crisis. The following excerpt is from The White House’s official website.

Q [Costas]: During the Opening Ceremony we saw you conferring with Vladimir Putin.


Q: We now know you were talking about the conflict that had erupted that day –

THE PRESIDENT: That’s true.

Q: between Russia and Georgia. Now, Georgia is a former Soviet republic that is sympathetic to the West –


Q: and that is attempting to embody many Western values. But just as you need China, you need Russia strategically around the globe. You got to walk a fine line. What did you say to Putin?

THE PRESIDENT: I said this violence is unacceptable – I not only said it to Vladimir Putin, I’ve said it to the President of the country, Dmitry Medvedev. And my administration has been engaged with both sides in this, trying to get a cease-fire, and saying that the status quo ante for all troops should be August 6th. And, look, I expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia. It was just interesting to me that here we are trying to promote peace and harmony and we’re witnessing a conflict take place.

Q: Right, no Olympic truce in this case.

THE PRESIDENT: There wasn’t. And I was very firm with Vladimir Putin – he and I have got a good relationship – just like I was firm with the Russian President. And hopefully this will get resolved peacefully. There needs to be a [sic] international mediation there for the South Ossetia issue.25

Since the Georgian invasion broke the mythical Olympic truce by which participating nations agree to cease military aggression in the name of Olympic themes of peace and unity, it is interesting how Russia’s actions in South Ossetia and America’s incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan are sublimated by the controversy surrounding the smiling face of Lin Miaoka. Or are they? Given the sound/image connection of Bush and Putin, where “Ode to the Motherland” acts as a sound bridge masking the actual dialogue about war, can we not within a cinematic critique consider this juxtaposition to be an ironic comment on the doublespeak of Olympic political spectacle in general? How can Guy Debord’s notion of a “society of the spectacle” ever be kept honest anyway? As Debord writes, “in a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.” 26 In René Viénet’s situationist film Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, Viénet infamously counterpoised a martial arts action film against Marxist-infused subtitles through an aesthetic strategy of détournement. It would seem by extrapolation to this 2008 cinematic “happening” that the Olympic sport of political spectacle is all about diversion (although not in an empowering sense) and reading between the lines. The problem of authenticity indicated by the Lin Miaoka/Yang Peiyi scandal is very much the anaesthetic tactic of sublime political spectacle – this is not the exception, but the rule itself.

The tension between politics, sports, and spectacle proved an ever-present factor in this ceremony. As Costas said early on, “politics and the Olympics often intersect.” Still, the overt policy of NBC commentators was to focus mostly on positive Olympic themes.

The above apolitical dialogue pointedly occurred during the most overtly political part of the opening ceremony, the Parade of Nations. Over twice as long as the artistic portion and following directly on its heels, the Parade of Nations involves a tour of the participating countries’ athletes around the stadium behind their respective flag bearers. During this parade NBC bombarded the audience with trivia to keep their audience tuned in. Data about countries’ geographical locations, populations, and the number of athletes was supplemented by anecdotal commentary from Costas and Lauer (Cooper Ramo was notably absent during this portion). As Anthony Lane of The New Yorker reported, this particular spectacle still managed to produce palpable political tensions:

A new academic discipline suggested itself: acoustipolitics, founded on the statistical correlation between the size of a cheer and the current state of relations between any given nation and its host. Thus, the Chinese roar for Pakistan far outstripped its muted reception of India, echoing a preference that harks back to the Cold War. The American team was greeted with an indecipherable blizzard of white noise.…A storm of applause even met Vladimir Putin as he rose to wave at his compatriots. He wore the polite smile of a man who knew – as the crowd did not yet know – that he had just dispatched his armored divisions to quell a vexatious neighbor. No doubt he was musing upon the wise words of Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who had opened the proceedings, in a recorded speech, requesting all nations at war to lay down their arms and thus observe “the Olympic Truce.”27

Matt Lauer voiced similar thoughts with almost giddy apprehension:

Much of this hype proved to be false anticipation as it was difficult to make out differences in “acoustipolitics” from the broadcast. Still, audiences had the anecdotal observations of NBC commentators to rely on. For example, much was made of the fact that, despite IOC negotiations, the North and South Korean teams would march separately unlike in previous Olympic Games. This was noted as a political step backwards. Audiences were also informed that, after receiving death threats, a female Afghani athlete had disappeared from training in Italy. They were also told Iraq received an especially large cheer. However, the tone notably soured for Iran. Lauer discussed in particular how China and the United States agreed to apply political pressure to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, “so again politics and sports colliding.” Regardless of Olympic ideals, it appears politics cannot be removed from sports.

The last major theme I want to discuss from the NBC broadcast is the use of advertising. Although local advertising varies regionally, it is worth highlighting a few of the national ad campaigns that sought to infuse capitalist sponsorship into Zhang’s fluid cinematic narrative using Raymond Williams’s concept of “flow.”28 After all, if this is a real-time cinematic event, as the NBC commentators frequently announce, then how can we divorce the interstitial ads from the cinematic experience? Even as non-diegetic inserts they occur during the movie. The result is an uneasy marriage of consumer capitalism and communist spectacle. Rephrasing Jean-Luc Godard from Masculin-Feminin, the ads frame consumers as the vicarious athletes of Marx and Coca-Cola. The fundamental ideologies portrayed through these national advertising campaigns suggest that by merely buying products which support American Olympic athletes and ideals, one is helping achieve global harmony and peace through patriotic competition. Capitalism is competition, and hence buying American products helps America compete to beat communist nations on their home turf. The message? Do your Olympic part to defeat Marxism; consume Coca-Cola.

The following lyrics are from the version of the Coca-Cola advertisement that appeared during the opening ceremony. The ad depicted digital birds drinking Coke and building a miniature bird’s nest stadium outside the real one all to a Bob Dylan-esque folk song:

We take a little and we make it sublime
We build a nest one straw at a time
Who said that we could not succeed?
Well, it looks like we have succeeded to me
All it takes is an Olympic-sized quest
We can build a nest like Beijing’s best
Our very own stadium of dreams.28

Further emphasizing sublime consumption, a sign proclaims, “Live Olympic on the Coke side of life.” Yet another Coke commercial trumpets, “If you’ve bought a Coke in the last eighty years, you’ve contributed to America’s Olympic dreams.” Why Coke? For Slavoj Zizek, Coke represents the surplus of enjoyment – that extra fulfilling x-factor in our lives that will complete them and make them somehow better.29 As Zizek argues, the more you drink the thirstier you get. So, Coke is IT for Zizek in the sense it represents an ideal object of desire that, once obtained and consumed, will leave one’s identity unfulfilled, wanting more of “IT,” more Coke, and in that sense demonstrating dramatically how our desire for the sublime experience is commodified and integrated by economic processes that function as routine habit in our everyday lives.

But what goes best with Coke?  Why, a Southern Style Chicken Sandwich of course. “I’m going for it. I’ve been dreaming about it since I was a kid: the perfect chicken sandwich. It’s perfectly seasoned. It’s juicy. It’s just how I like it. All white meat chicken served warm with pickles on a steamy buttery tasting bun. Why settle for silver when you can get gold?!”30

There were other McDonalds Olympic advertisements, but nowhere else was it ever so certain that pickles and chicken would help win the Olympics and save America from communism.
In the Budweiser Olympic commercial, we see patriotic consumerism at full tilt. Juxtaposed with a montage of working people in rural and urban areas across America, we hear the lyrics of a blue-collar themed Bob Seger-esque rock song. “This is who I am; this is where I’m from; this is what I believe in when the day is done; this is our tradition, this is what we do, this is our commitment, and we’re staying true; this is Budweiser, this is beer” (background vocals: “Tradition’s here; our commitment’s clear”). The message indeed could not be more clear; America is full of hard working patriots, and Budweiser stands for all things American. We can simplify this equation further: Budweiser is America, although Budweiser paradoxically announced on June 11, 2008 that it was being sold to Belgian distributor InBev.31 While the advertising language now seems duplicitous, the marketing strategy implies that if we all get drunk enough we may just forget about the corporate sellout of American products to foreign interests. There also exist underlying political connotations as Cindy and John McCain are directly connected to the Budweiser fortune.

Since 2008 is an election year, my regional NBC advertising was full of local election advertising. Yet, surprisingly, only one national campaign commercial aired during the entire NBC broadcast. During the Parade of Nations segment, NBC aired a McCain commercial. This “celebrity” ad positioned opponent Barack Obama as a lying global demagogue concerned only with amassing power for shady, hidden reasons. As crowds shout “Obama,” we are meant to be frightened by his popularity. This “wolf in sheep’s clothing” narrative claims that the “real Obama” wants higher taxes, more government spending, and fewer jobs, the point being  that behind his celebrity image Obama “really” wants to destroy America. In contrast to the ominous tones accompanying the images of Obama, the music suddenly changes to hopeful notes positioning McCain on the side of renewable energy independence and job creation. The message is to not buy into the Obama spectacle, because you will get burned. Instead, we should believe John McCain, because, like Budweiser, he is real and his message is true. What is interesting about this particular commercial is that it comes during the Parade of Nations in the middle of the opening ceremony, and yet his message is one of political though not economic isolation. If we buy in too much to the spectacle of global unity, McCain infers that we are selling ourselves out. Obama is thus negatively associated with Olympic spectacle whereas McCain’s pragmatic patriotism trumps the illusion of Olympic ideals.32  

What are we to make of this Olympic advertising onslaught as a whole? With cinematic values akin to Super Bowl commercials, these national ad campaigns clearly had large amounts of capital invested into their production, distribution, and exhibition. They were tailor made for the event audience just as one would expect. The messages were often mixed and, like the opening ceremony, their images were often spectacular. Diverting spectators with bombastic images of patriotism and capitalist competition, these commercials nonetheless claimed for the most part to promote global unity and assuage audiences’ political anxieties through the Olympic theme of harmony. The opening ceremony commercials typically argued that we could achieve neo-Marxist egalitarian ideals through diversionary capitalist habits; human equality through buying things. Even the McCain ad seemed to connect to other mixed messages about achieving political harmony through energy independence by buying gas and investing in more oil drilling.  The message of unity? We will all get along just fine if we can keep the right few in power. As a purportedly benevolent corporation, their Olympic commercials made the case that they act solely in the public good, “One World, One Dream.” Yet, it was GE who best summed up the forward-looking communal efforts of capitalist industry. In their commercial, two young Chinese girls discover a dragon in a cave only to divert the dragon’s fire-breathing smoke into large pipes in order to heat a village hot tub. Recycling biological waste is “no longer the stuff of legend” and dragon gas (biogas) can power the world of tomorrow – or at least a hot tub.33

II.  The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

How does the “live” time-delayed NBC broadcast compare to its official DVD set, the Video On Demand highlight reel, and the CCTV DVD? Actually, the NBC two-DVD set reproduces the initial NBC broadcast and commentary very closely. It includes the two opening segments introducing us to modern China through the eyes of Tom Brokaw and the sports clichés of Jim Lampley. However, we get clear cuts where the ads once were without any reinstatement or summary of the missing CCTV content. Further, we do not get the commentary wrap up from the NBC broadcast. This segment includes a final interview with basketball star and Chinese flag bearer Yao Ming holding a young boy, Lin Hao, who provided the most moving human story of the ceremony.34As the Chinese Olympic team entered the stadium and ended the Parade of Nations, Bob Costas observed:

As the team circled the stadium, the NBC commentators further played up the significance of the Olympic moment in Chinese history.  The star of the spectacle was Lin Hao, symbolically deployed as an authentic emotional touchstone.  Lin Hao is an iconic figure of the ceremony, combining the political ethics of cultural duty with the Olympic ideals of hope and unity focusing on children, the owners of tomorrow.  As Lauer said, “that story of that little boy; if that doesn’t move you…”  In fact, image after image for the remainder of the ceremony returned to shots of Yao Ming standing next to or holding Lin Hao in his arms.  Hence, during the wrap up following the lighting of the cauldron that was cut from the NBC DVD release, the “live” broadcast returned one more time to the floor of the stadium for a closing interview from Peter Alexander with Yao Ming holding young Lin Hao. 

Alexander: What does it mean and these games mean to you?

Yao: I’ve been waiting for this my entire life until right now.  You know not just me, not just the people who are in this stadium, but also the whole country. You know, these games will bring us a lot of confidence, a lot of hope for the future.…

Alexander: At 7’6” you're a hard man to miss, but I think the young man that everybody’s eyes were looking at tonight was this man here, Lin Hao, a nine year old, a second grader [Lin Hao looks off somewhere else] from Sichuan Province who got out of the rubble after the earthquake and then saved two of his friends. What does he mean to this country?  [Lin Hao now looks at Alexander.]

Yao:  He means hope for China’s future.  You know, even a nine years old kid know how to help each together [sic].  You know, that’s a very good example for our entire country….For this event, he’s here when he’s ten years old.  I believe that after thirty, forty, even fifty years later, he will remember this moment.  You know, he will tell his grandson how this event looks like. I’ll tell you my feelings; I almost cried.  You know, no matter how many big events I went to, this is the biggest.  

Lin Hao:  Thank you.  [He shakes Alexander’s hand]

[We cut to NBC’s three commentators chuckling at the cuteness of Lin Hao.]

What is interesting is how Lin Hao is used as a quilting point both for the four hour event and the NBC commentary.  Everything shown, spoken, and left unsaid can be ameliorated through the emotional depths of his unique story.  Lin Hao provides an innocent heroic authentic link that humanizes the sublime Chinese spectacle for both local and global audiences.  Once asked to be in awe of the technology, resources, and special effects, as spectators we can now marvel at the efforts of a small boy who knew his instinctual cultural duty to act outside of his own interests of self-preservation in service of the greater good.  As the linking tenet of communism as well as the Olympics, this notion of direct action for the collective benefit of others stirred by the story of Lin Hao stands worlds apart from the capitalist lesson of ordering a chicken sandwich with pickles in the vicarious service of patriotism.

Last from NBC, we have the Video On Demand (VOD) fifty-two minute highlight version available.35 This version not only further edits the NBC broadcast, it actually re-orders certain segments for a new narrative effect. Here there is no single master narrative to be called “authentic.” Even the CCTV DVD is comprised of two different audio versions. Instead we have a polyvalent cinematic event. The movie itself not only shifts according to audience but to the technological capabilities, the level of sustained interest, and the sheer convenience of consumer viewing demands.

NBC’s VOD version has ten segments which, as one would expect, eliminate ads as well as significant portions of the ceremony like the Parade of Nations. It begins right after the faked digital fireworks segment of twenty-nine footprints. It starts with the Olympic rings being raised off the floor “as if by magic” according to Lauer and continues through Lin Miaoka’s lip-synch and the fifty-six Han children in minority costumes. However, NBC chose to re-edit segments six and seven, inverting their order. Hence, we are no longer in the linear narrative directed by Zhang but are instead entering a non-linear producers’ cut performed by NBC.
What are we to make of this re-editing choice? Perhaps more context will help answer this question. Segment Eight picks up where it should be depicting a giant globe prop that has risen from the ground with people running around it laterally while suspended as British theatre star Sarah Brightman sings a duet titled “You and Me”with Chinese pop star Liu Huan. Following this, the Parade of Nations should begin or at least bring the video highlights to an end. Instead, the VOD returns us to the earliest moments of the opening ceremony that announced the beginning of the artistic portion. Thus, NBC combined the ancient and modern into a single section and re-edited the syuzhet, or plot segments, for maximum build-up of spectacle in the altered fabula or story.36 The shorter movie has a new climax.

During this final portion we see blinding strobe effects from the lit drums which pulsate as the crowd roars. Flashbulbs actually create a double strobe effect incorporating the audience into the spectacle. We see lines of drummers far and near alternating in view as cameras cut, pan, and track from close shots of individuals to bird’s eye Busby Berkeley-esque compositions. The lights stop; all the drummers stand quietly awaiting something as fans wave multi-colored glow sticks in the background. The lit-drum domino effect starts again from our perpendicular ninety degree high angle view. A V-shape is being lit up en route to lighting the whole event. On the CCTV DVD we see more establishing shots of the whole lighting effect and a long tracking shot inside the rows of men as compared to the partial NBC shots that only join the effect halfway through. Whereas the CCTV version chooses ideal angles, NBC chooses movement instead. The problem is that the NBC angles are often too close and cut away too often from high angles to get a sense of the full cinematic effect. As this comparison illustrates, this is an NBC cut of Zhang’s event; this is a producers’ cut, as if digitally designed to be re-edited any way you want.

Then all is dark and quiet. The glowing drum countdown begins: Each highlighted digit is accompanied by a flash of light, and attached sound effect, followed by a huge crowd roar. Mass strobing ensues, the lights come up, and we switch to our NBC aerial view as the fireworks shoot up from around the stadium. We quickly cut back to the strobing drummers; then the view cuts back up to an aerial shot with rings of firework explosions lighting up the sky.

The NBC VOD non-linear structure intensifies rhythm at the expense of continuity. It builds anticipation through heightened effect and ends on a countdown. What should be an announcement of the start of the Beijing opening ceremony is reconfigured in the VOD as a narrative start to the Olympic Games as a whole with the maximum impact of spectacle. There is no Parade of Nations or lighting of the torch. Ending the NBC VOD program on a suspenseful note of intimidation and awe, Lauer’s closing VOD comments encapsulate NBC’s sublime approach: “Bob, a nation of one point three billion putting on a show like this and people at home are not alone if they are saying it is both awe-inspiring and perhaps a little intimidating.  But they told these drummers earlier in the rehearsal to smile more and that’s taken some of the edge off of it.”  As cinematic spectacle, this is the shock cut.

With respect to the CCTV DVD, we can discern other differences from the NBC versions not yet discussed. I am grateful to Dr. Hong-Ming Liang, Assistant Professor of History, Politics, and Culture at The College of St. Scholastica for his work noting recurring themes in the Chinese Mandarin version. Whereas NBC focused on future shock and technological marvels, Liang remarks in contrast how antiquity was narratively foregrounded in the Chinese version, albeit “a very particular, and recent, cinematic “re-imagined” kind of antiquity.” Rooting the futurist “cinematic” spectacle in the ancient dreams of nation and culture plausibly aims to provide a sense of real historical continuity for Chinese audiences. With respect to marketing such Chinese history to foreign audiences Liang observes, “It is remarkable how the Communist Party either marginalized itself, and/or is repackaging itself into this cinematic antiquity.  Except for the Not Cute Enough Little Girl and her ‘Ode to Motherland’, with the flag and soldiers and the ethnic/religious minorities happily dressed up in representative attire, the CCP disappeared.”  While Zhang’s theme of harmony is clearly visible and discussed in both the NBC and CCTV versions, from an outsider perspective it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which such links with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been suppressed. The reactionary xenophobic response is typically that if one cannot find the object of fear anywhere, then it must be everywhere. Consequently, NBC arguably overcompensated for the lack of visible CCP militarism by focusing on the displaced sublime spectacle of numbers, technology, and manpower:  the aesthetic potential for militarism. As Lauer stated, smiles take “some of the edge off of it.” Further, Liang’s observation of the often “strained” connection between the Olympics and Chinese history is wholly absent from the NBC commentary. Liang concludes, “Given the ancient-ness emphasis, the Chinese narrative strained to connect with a) the Olympics, and b) the world and here and now – leading to such clunkers as an assertion that hosting the Olympics has been the desire of the Chinese people for ‘centuries’.” From a Western gaze, NBC arguably takes the complex historical facet of the Chinese Olympic spectacle at face value.

As mentioned, the NBC commercial breaks created some deleted scenes as well. The CCTV DVD includes those sequences, and they are worth noting for their conspicuous absence in the NBC cut. The NBC broadcast and DVDs omit two entire artistic segments, including an elaborate Beijing opera puppetry display and a pre-recorded video aired without dialogue showing the process of paper creation. Given Liang’s comments, one can appreciate how these segments aimed to provide historical continuity between ancient and modern Chinese culture. On the other hand, both segments lack the grand scale and awe that one imagines played into the considerations of NBC executives planning their commercial edits. However, we cannot ignore that in deleting these scenes and replacing them with advertising, a new NBC cut of the movie has been surreptitiously created at the expense of auteur intent. While that happens all the time in film production due to preview screenings and contractual stipulations about final cut, it is interesting to see how a Chinese movie was essentially re-dubbed with NBC commentary and re-cut by the producers. Zhang’s movie was reframed for an American audience. There is the movie you saw, the movie think you saw, and the movie you did not see. These are hazards of the cinematic trade and the nature of the spectacle to be sure, but it raises two important points in conclusion.

First, as television and political spectacle become more cinematic, digitalization forces us to reexamine presumptions about authenticity and the nature of the medium. As we see in any number of directors’ cuts on DVDs and fan edits, holding onto a single “true” version of a movie is trickier than ever. We need to ask if this is a valuable goal when the cinematic art form is being so drastically redefined through digital media. As cineastes, are we still wrapped up in the ontological illusion of preserving and restoring the purity of singular film artifacts? In other words, does the future of cinema and, by extension, what counts as cinematic involve forgoing the concept of dominant narratives altogether in favor of narrative on demand?  When we speak of auteur intent are we in fact speaking of consumer demand?  

Second, allegations of cultural doping are a polyvalent function of spectacle. Cultural translators of sublime spectacles use the confusing, overpowering nature of these events to numb and distract us in order to impart other messages.  In a cross-cultural dialogue, this anaesthetic strategy works both ways.  The only thing more effective than a three hundred million dollar cinematic spectacle to spread the message of harmony through sublimated communism is an American commentary track that claims its sole purpose is to clarify and translate while selling fear, chicken, and oil. 

The rhetorical translation of spectacle is intricately involved in the production of new meanings – not just the archaeology of Truth.  As Michel Foucault routinely demonstrated in his body of work, we cannot usefully separate out the term power from knowledge; we find meaning through our exposure to power-knowledge effects.38  Power is not a noun to isolate in Foucault’s context; it functions as a verb – knowledge is inseparable from acts of power.  Hence, the construction of knowledge through often abusive exclusionary acts of power is performative.  Applying Foucault to the case at hand, one does not locate the source of Chinese or American cultural power somewhere inside the Olympic spectacle but through its performance.  Thus, the rhetoric of NBC commentary that frames the Beijing opening ceremony in particular ways can be considered as much a part of the spectacle’s fabula as Zhang Yimou’s auteur intent, John McCain’s politics, or the consumer propaganda of Coca-Cola.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, while classical definitions of sublimity only focus on overwhelming natural spectacles like earthquakes, volcanoes, and starry nights as truly sublime, those definitions also presume stability in truth, knowledge, and things.39  By contrast, contemporary theorists like Nye, Zizek, and Lyotard typically consider sublime those socially mediated differences between self and other.40 For Lyotard in particular, postmodernity is both an economic and aesthetic condition.  In his idea, the postmodern sublime comes to represent the differences (le differend) between us – the incommensurable or irreconcilable differences between the subject and object of knowledge.  Rather than solidifying Truth through the relief felt in surviving such overpowering natural spectacles like a tornado (a classically sublime moment), postmodern sublimity points to the very impossibility of finding Truth in any form of spectacle.  In the context of the Beijing opening ceremony and the perceived loss of authenticity demonstrated by the various digital versions of the event, the cinematically mediated differences between “I” and “Not I” or “America versus China” compete for cultural dominance through a doped vernacular of awe and distraction.  This anaesthetic competition for meaning through diversionary cultural spectacle consequently produces superimposed mixed messages for viewers – the cinematic equivalent of a “double exposure.”


1. Anthony Lane, “Letter from Beijing:  The Only Games in Town:  Week One at the Olympics,” The New Yorker, August 25, 2008, (accessed October 10, 2008).

2. “Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony:  Over 2 Billion Viewers Tune In,” Press Release, The Nielsen Company, August 14, 2008, (accessed October 2, 2008).

3. “840 Million Opening Ceremony Viewers in China,” Press Release, The Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 10, 2008, (accessed October 2, 2008).

4. Rachel Abramowitz, “Spielberg Drops Out as Beijing Olympics Advisor,” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2008, (accessed October 2, 2008).  Interestingly, director Steven Spielberg was initially asked by Zhang Yimou to be an advisor on the Beijing games ceremony.  However, Spielberg later turned down the work in light of public controversy over China’s political role in not applying pressure on the Sudanese government to end the Darfur genocide.  We can only speculate how the added double auteur exposure including the Spielberg touch would have changed the feel of the Olympic opening ceremony with his Hollywood perspective. 

5. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 1998/2005, (accessed October 20, 2008).  See also Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (London:  Fontana Press, 1992), 235.

6. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987).  Note that for Kant, the sublime is an aesthetic category of taste.  Unlike feelings of pure beauty, perceptions of the sublime, following on Edmund Burke’s concept of “negative pleasure,” are at first painful in our inability to apprehend them with our faculty of imagination, and then pleasurable as we refer the successfully to our faculty of reason.  We can comprehend what we cannot fully apprehend.  In this realization, we are saved from our sensible humiliation by our supersensible abilities.  This reminds us of our shared universal capacity to reason which produces a moral sense of worth.  Kant further distinguishes between types of natural events that provoke feelings of sublimity:  the powerful dynamic event (a tornado which one is safe from) versus the mathematically sublime (the starry night).  Immeasurable power is separated from inestimable numerical size.  However, both convey a world that seems at first as if it was made not to be apprehended by humans.  Hence, our latent ability to prove that initial humiliating apprehension wrong through our comprehending faculty of reason demonstrates our universal human worth.

7. See Edmund Burke , Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1958).  In Burke’s notion of sublimity, beauty is associated with pleasure and pain with the sublime.  Physiological pain which is felt as the body tightens amidst feelings of terror, is relieved by the safety of distance; the thought that “this is not actually happening to me” prevails.  Horror movies and roller coasters would be strong contemporary corollaries.  The sublime is first painful, then pleasurable, upon the realization of safety from danger. 

8. Jean-François Lyotard, “Answering the Question:  What is Postmodernism?” The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, vol. 10 of Theory and History of Literature (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 71.  For Lyotard, postmodernity is foremost indicated by a switch in post-industrial society to a service-oriented economy.  In a technologically shrinking world, this paradigm shift results in the death of grand metanarratives and a new focus on local cultural truths.  Aesthetically, postmodern art centralizes the discussion of negative space and margins.  This artistic shift is most noticeable for Lyotard in the avant-garde.

9. David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1994).  See, in particular, Nye’s Chapter 11, “The Consumer’s Sublime,” 281-296.

10. Slavoj Žižek, “Surplus Enjoyment Between the Sublime and the Trash,” Lacanian Ink / 15 (Fall 1999): 98-107, (accessed October 12, 2008).

11. It should be noted the following discussion is limited only to the Beijing opening ceremony.  Further, it is limited to a comparison of the NBC and CCTV versions, whereas other versions and DVDs exist.  It can be assumed that each country adds its own commentary and framing of the event.  Thus, this discussion is focused on the dialogue of spectacle between the United States and China.  With respect to the CCTV broadcast commentary, I am thankful to Hong-Ming Liang, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Politics, and Culture at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN for his impressions and translation.

12. “Beijing 2008,” CCTV Website, (accessed October 1, 2008).  Note that this version is also currently available for purchase at the English-friendly website, (access October 26, 2008).

13. Leigh Holmwood, “Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony Pulls in Record Audience in US,” The Guardian, August 11, 2008, (accessed October 3, 2008). 

14. Clifford Coonan, “Girl whose Singing Lit Up the Opening Ceremony – Shame her Face Didn’t Fit,” The Independent, 13 August 2008, 
girl-whose-singing-lit-up-the-opening-ceremony-ndash-shame-her-face-didnt-fit-892855.html (accessed October 10, 2008).

15. NPR, “What To Watch Without Getting Fooled,” NPR Website Audio Report by Alex Chadwick and Madeleine Brand , August 12, 2008, (accessed October 2, 2008).  See also NPR, “Live From Beijing: Computer-Enhanced Fireworks,” NPR Website Audio Report by David Folkenflik, August 12, 2008, (accessed October 10, 2008), and Aaron Bamhart, “So How Much ELSE of the Olympics is Being Faked for TV?” TV Barn Blog, entry posted  August 12, 2008, (accessed October 12, 2008).

16. “Beijing Enhanced Olympics Show with Faked ‘Fireworks,’” Associated Press on, August 12, 2008, (accessed October 3, 2008).

17. All time codes refer to the official NBC DVD Disk 1 unless otherwise noted.  The DVDs in this set retain the same quoted comments as the broadcast version.

18. At the end of the ceremony as Yao Ming stands next to young Lin Hao, a survivor and hero of the May 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake, NBC’s China Analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo notes:

And I think, you know, it’s so much captured, we saw so much in that artistic segment of, you know, opposites being balanced with one another.  Hard and soft, light and dark, here we have tall and short, but of course what’s really being balanced is the incredible tragedy of that earthquake in Sichuan and the incredible joy of this moment.  And China, one of the reasons it is so hard to explain this place to people, is not only is it a place with great success like Beijing and hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty, it is also a country facing unbelievable challenges in the future.

19. David Barboza, “Astronauts Return Safely to China,” The New York Times, September 28, 2008, (accessed October 2, 2008), and Anthony R. Curtis, “Three Chinese Astronauts Orbited in 2008,” Space Today Online, (accessed October 17, 2008).

20. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1978).

21. “WTO Successfully Concludes Negotiations on China’s Entry,” WTO Press Release, 17 September 2001, (accessed October 3, 2008).

22. Cara Anna, “Olympic Opening Uses girl’s Voice, Not Face” USA Today, August 13, 2008, (accessed October 10, 2008); Ms. Anthrope, “Olympic Controversy Alert: China Likes to Fake It,” AfterEllen Blog, entry posted August 22, 2008, (accessed October 10, 2008); Robert Vance, “Little Olympic Girl in Red Dress Pulls an ‘Ashley Simpson,’” The China Teaching Web, August 12, 2008, (accessed October 10, 2008).

24. Richard Spencer, “Beijing Olympics: ‘Ethnic’ Children Exposed as Fakes in Opening Ceremony,” The Telegraph, August 15, 2008, (accessed October 3, 2008).

25. “Interview of the President by Bob Costas, NBC Sports,” International Broadcasting Center, Beijing, White House Press Release, August 11, 2008, (accessed October 3, 2008).

26. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Marxists Internet Archive, Par. 9, (accessed October 15, 2008).

28. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York:  Schocken Books/Routledge, 1975)

29. 2008 Beijing Olympics Coca-Cola Commercial, YouTube, posted August 8, 2008, (accessed October 21, 2008).

30. Žižek, “Surplus Enjoyment,”

31. 2008 McDonald’s Olympic Southern Chicken Sandwich Commercial, YouTube, posted August 13, 2008, (accessed October 21, 2008).

32. Avi Salzman, “Critics of the Bud Buyout Are Frothing,” BusinessWeek, June 13, 2008, (accessed October 7, 2008).

33. CBS News Report on McCain’s Celebrity Advertising Campaign, YouTube, posted July 31, 2008, (accessed October 17, 2008), and 2008 John McCain “Celebrity” Commercial (this is an abbreviated version of the one that played during the opening ceremony broadcast), YouTube, posted August 7, 2008, (accessed October 17, 2008).

34. 2008 GE Olympics Biogas Commercial, YouTube, posted August 14, 2008, (accessed October 21, 2008).

35. Link to NBC’s Olympic photo gallery featuring Yao Ming and Lin Hao, (accessed October 24, 2008).

36. Link to the purchase and download site for the NBC Beijing Opening Ceremony VOD, (accessed October 24, 2008).

37. Bordwell, David, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 49-50.  This portion of the text can be accessed through Google Books at the following link:,M1

38. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge : Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 133.  Foucault writes:

The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn't outside power, or lacking in power…truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves.  Truth is a thing of this world:  it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it includes regular effects of power.
“Truth” is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.
“Truth” is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it.  A “regime” of truth.

39. Burke, Philosophical Enquiry; Kant, Critique of Judgment.

40. Nye, American Technological Sublime; Žižek, “Surplus Enjoyment”; and Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

41.Thomas Elsaesser, "The New Film History as Media Archaeology," Cinemas, Volume 14, numéros 2-3 (Printemps 2005), p. 93.