Which you so nobly serve
Shout out to the ebayer who hooked me up with last minute solar viewers for a very reasonable six bucks and one-day shipping. Not least of all because they were ostensibly legit, since my retinas seem mostly intact.
Today’s eclipse also got me thinking bout all the fun SciFi disasters astronomical events have kicked off throughout cinematic history. One of the earliest movie VHS tapes I remember us getting when I was a kid was 1984’s NIGHT OF THE COMET, which had Earth passing through the tale of a comet precipitating the zombie apocalypse. Nice gimmick wagering the 1986 pass of Halley’s Comet against the 1984 box office I reckon. Also one of my earliest impressions of Valley Girls and Shopping Malls.
And speaking of astronomical phenomena as movie gimmicks, I was also reminded of 1997’s epic THE FIFTH ELEMENT, probably in part due to all the 20th anniversary press floating around out there. That film did kick things off with a triple planetary eclipse, making for 3-times the dramatic space hoodoo and subsequently turning loose the Big Bad Hershey’s Chocolate-drooling omniscient Evil. Everything about THE FIFTH ELEMENT made it one of my most favorite movies of 1997– but please, whatever you do, don’t go googling my name + THE FIFTH ELEMENT. But then, 1997 was a great year for some classic fun movies.
So, fangirl that I am, whenever THE FIFTH ELEMENT comes up, there is one specific line that starts obtrusively looping in my brain. It is a mantra wrapped in deceit, menace and an absolutely ridiculous accent:
“Life, which you so nobly serve, comes from destruction, disorder and chaos.”
This has long been one of my favorite lines of dialogue. It has always been this charming and exquisite capsule of perfection for me. On so many levels that I’m compelled to enumerate a few of them.
To begin, it’s Gary Oldman’s amazing delivery as Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg himself. Like everyone else in the film, Zorg is a cartoon. I specifically recall some critic, probably someone at Entertainment Weekly, comparing Oldman’s accent in the film to Foghorn Leghorn. Say a southern fried pastiche of Colonel Sanders with a Hitler haircut. What’s not to love?
As I may have mentioned, a few dozen times, cartoon villainy is always a bonus for me. I love being able to draw humor and comedy out of the negative human traits. It’s catharsis for dealing with reality. If I can laugh at selfishness, unchecked capitalism and class warfare, and facsimiles of very real fascism is silly movies, then I hope at least there’s a chance humans can move past them someday. So Zorg is the perfect capitalist here. He has everything in the world of this film and Besson is so confident in the setup he doesn’t spoon feed any backstory, there’s just enough detail to project infinite backstories. Zorg is this odd future version of Steve Jobs, who deals weapons to space terrorists for what, fun? I mean he’s already the richest dude around, are we to presume that working with Tricky and space terrorists got him where he is? Zorg owes something/everything to the chocolate syrup evil, but what? He’s shrouded in curiosity.
Then, as he’s literally ‘playing dumb’ he drops this philosophical con job on Ian Holm’s character, Father Vito Cornelius. Like he’s spun this tale a million times before, whenever anyone with altruistic motives has tried to stop him. And we just know he’s gotten away with it of course, crushing his detractors every time. Because that’s what all that stuff in the trophy cases in Zorg’s office sells the audience, both to characters within the scene and to the film audience. It’s such a perfect little moment.
Then there’s Gary Oldman himself. In 1997, I know I had probably run across him in 10th or 11th grade English with the Demi Moore version of THE SCARLET LETTER. After High School I know I particularly loathed Hawthorne’s stupid prose, though who can say film had any bearing on that? More specifically I know that after seeing THE FIFTH ELEMENT, I was seized of the opinion that Gary Oldman was the single greatest working actor around and then proceeded to raid The Blockbuster Video and staying up all weekend to watch 28 hours of Gary Oldman films before going back to the theater and seeing THE FIFTH ELEMENT again. I mean, okay. That’s me being a bit over enthusiastic, sure, but you have to admit SID AND NANCY, JFK, BRAM STOKERS DRACULA, TRUE ROMANCE, ROMEO IS BLEEDING, LEON, IMMORTAL BELOVED, ROZENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD and MURDER IN THE FIRST makes for one hell of a weekend film festival, yeah?
There was also the narrative at the time about how Luc Besson originally wrote the script for THE FIFTH ELEMENT while he was in high school. And because I was a young dumb kid, it easily planted the question, ‘Could some of the very stories I was imagining at that time go on and become major action films starring Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman?’ I mean why not? So this set off a Luc Besson film festival where I went back to watch LEON (again) and LA FEMME NIKITA, and THE FIFTH ELEMENT about a dozen times.
Then there was the irl context of me first hearing that line, as I recollect:
- Free sneak preview tickets, scored from Capitol Comics II. Caught the film in April about a month before the release, so the screening had the smack of privilege around it.
- Hanging with the awesome Doug Tempest, who to this day is a rad dude.
- Being early days in my love affair with film, breathing movies, working at movies, and sending me off on scavenger hunt of Oldman, Ian Holm and Besson films.
- Sitting in that movie theater and literally holding my breath in the big climax scene when that match flickers.
- Then, having the profound realization that someone, namely Luc Besson, could write a script and communicate with an audience, namely me, all of the above with thirteen little words.
Man, I’m telling you, I’ve been forever doomed since that film. 1997 itself just cemented things with the likes of GROSSE POINTE BLANK, DONNIE BRASCO, MIMIC, GATTACA, AIR FORCE ONE, MEN IN BLACK, EVENT HORIZON, FACE/OFF, CONAIR, VOLCANO, LA CONFIDENTIAL, BOOGIE NIGHTS, KISS THE GIRLS, THE JACKAL and MOUSEHUNT. And yo, for however cheesy some of those movies are, they are in my DNA. For all of Luc Besson’s flaws, THE FIFTH ELEMENT had a profound effect on me. And for every German class, Japanese Rosetta lesson, Spanish lecture and Russian Duolingo level I’ve studied since, film is really the only language I’ve most desperately wanted to speak. With enough fluency that some day maybe I’ll get some dumb kid to hold their breath in a movie theater somewhere out in the world.