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Films that Stink (On Purpose)

Our reviewer takes a whiff of flicks with fragrance.

Dorothy Woodend 11 Oct

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

The other day I walked outside and the entire world smelled like it had been dipped in caramel. The Katsura trees are shedding their leaves and filling the streets of East Vancouver with a burnt sugar aroma. It is strongest first thing in the morning before the sun is fully up. In Germany, Katsura are called "kuchenbaum," or "cake tree. " The smell occurs only in the fall when the leaves turn colour.

It is a lovely thing to catch a whiff of this elusive, ephemeral scent, a tiny snatch of changing seasons. "You're alive!" it says. Better enjoy it while you can. A recent study from the University of Chicago revealed that a sudden loss of a sense of smell is a sure-fire indicator of imminent death. The humble sense of smell is not something that we talk about that often, especially when it comes to matters of film, but sometimes I really wish that movies stunk more.

You can see them, hear them, feel them even, but, with a few exceptions, you cannot smell them. The only film I ever saw that purposely combined cinema and scent was John Water's Polyester. It came with a scratch-and-sniff card and the conceit was that at various points in the story, you were supposed to scratch and snort the card to provide sensory accompaniment to the scenes on screen. I remember it didn't work very well, and that's about it. Earlier attempts to pair movies and smells, like Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama were resounding flops. But still the idea persists, maybe because smell has an emotional effect on memory and emotion quite unlike anything else. Entire industries are built around the emotive power of scent. Some research maintains that humans got into kissing in a big way as a means to sniff each other out more thoroughly. How somebody smells can determine whether you're a good match, genetically speaking.

Given the profound and primeval nature of our stinking selves, it's a shame there aren't many films that deal with the way things smell. This thought occurred to me the other day while I was watching a film about a Danish biodynamic farmer named Niels Stokholm and his herd of Red Danish dairy cows. The herd is one of the few remaining populations of the breed. Much of the film is taken up with Niels going about his daily business: feeding, milking and generally messing about with cows. It is beautiful beyond measure, saturated with bucolic loveliness. It is also a film you wish you could smell, especially when Niels himself talks about working the soil and being filled with the pollen of plants, impregnated with the aromas and tastes of the world.

Throughout the film, he regularly buries his face in mounds of fresh hay, new milk and freshly tilled earth. I started sniffing the air in sympathy, or more correctly in imitation, hoping that some faint waft would spill off the screen. Anyone who grew up on a farm knows there are some powerful smells to be had there, from mucking out stalls to the warm pong of cows. Niels's farm, Thorshøjgaard, supplies NOMA, the best restaurant in the entire world according to the folks who assign such awards. The causal relationship between happy and contented cows and the meat, milk and cheese products that end up on diners' plates at NOMA again comes back to smell. Niels maintains that a cow's horns help regulate digestion since they are porous and open to the air and therefore pick up scents that feed information into the animal. It's the great circle of eating, smelling and being eaten. Ah, life -- take a deep whiff!

'The Nose' knows

A world away from the hard and near-constant labour of farm life is another film called, appropriately enough, The Nose. The film concerns the work of Italian perfumer Alessandro Gualtieri, whose perfume house, Nasomatto (crazy nose in Italian), has created a line of scents that make grown men and women lose their little minds. A curious imp of a man possessed of offhand charm, a rakish moustache and exquisite taste in shoes, Gualtieri has created a line of niche fragrances that upend the traditional idea of pretty scents made from flowers. Some of his fragrances are built around things like hashish (Black Afgano) or cocaine (China White) as well as other conventional jumping off points -- "poop" for example, as he affectionately calls the fecal scents derived from the musk of horny Tonkin antelopes or the gland of a civet cat. The civet smell originates from "the gland between the anus and the balls," explains the fine Mr. Gualtieri to a rather befuddled woman at a perfume trade fair, who is busily peddling the world's most expensive perfume (Clive Christian's $215,000 Juice). "Animalic" is the polite term used in perfumery to refer to the various emissions and emetics of animals used in making fragrance -- think of the fabled ambergris, the waxy barf of sperm whales once used as a fixative in perfume.

The history of perfume dates from the Mesopotamian era. Almost as long as humans have been around, they've been trying to smell better. It's been an obsession for a good long while. So it is here as well, as Gualtieri sets out on a rather quixotic quest to make a new fragrance, governed by the principles of randomness and happy accident. Like John Cage throwing the I Ching or Brion Gysin's cut-ups, Gualtieri lets chance play a role in his creation. Initially it doesn't go very well.

In search of a scent he dubs Blamage (disgrace in German), he travels to the spice markets of Kashmir, visiting tiny grotto-like shops filled with mysterious vials of murky brown stuff, sticks of sandalwood and assorted spices. The film does interesting things in trying to visually represent what smells look like, cutting from images of resinous honeycomb stickiness to burning sticks of incense, the snap of green rhubarb, and the fatty butcher shop aroma of amber, all helpfully depicted in sizzling, crackling, oozing close-ups. It almost works, but it still leaves you curious as to the actual smells themselves.

It also makes you hungry, oddly enough.

The connection between smell and food is immediate and obvious. Ask anyone with a bad cold and they will tell you that food isn't all that exciting if you can't smell anything. In the same way that organic food, like that served at NOMA, bears little resemblance to McDonalds, so too, real perfume has very little in common with your typical department store stuff. In this, eccentric perfumers are akin to organic farmers in their dedication to ingredients, stringency of methodology, and attention and care lavished on preparation.

Like any good quest, the roots of what you're looking for often end up leading you home. The film's ultimate message, delivered in Gualtieri's sing-song Italian lilt is just that, "We are all fucking good but the problem is that we have to try, that is where everything goes fucking wrong… because you tend all the time to make the same shitty mistakes." But lo and behold, he actually did it. Blamage is finished and available for you to stick your nose in.

"Affinities and rejection in a certain way, then you create something magical," is how Gualtieri explains it. It is funny that The Nose ends with the perfumer waxing rhapsodic about the smell of farmyards and poop. I'm sure Niels Stokholm would be happy to hear this and in complete agreement.

I tell you all of this to make the point that smell is life, and to reiterate, the lack of it might mean you're about to drop dead.

The scent of death

The University of Chicago researchers that discovered the correlation between death and the loss of a sense of smell explain the findings in an interview with Public Radio International: "Smell is an ancient part of our nervous system," professor Jayant Pinto says. "We know that people at risk of brain diseases like Alzeimer's and Parkinson's disease lose their sense of smell before they develop the devastating consequences of those diseases. So, we think that sense of smell might be an early indicator of brain problems... [Our] olfactory nerve sits in the roof of the nose and is connected through little holes in the brain," Jayant explains, "So it's out in the environment, it's out in the air -- and things in the air can injure it."

Like Niels's cows' horns, our noses are just hanging out there, taking it all in, the good and the bad. There is a lot of bad at the moment. Walk around and see what kind of smells you react to and sense the things that depress you (the plastic reek of dollar stores does it for me). I won't bum you out with another litany of all that is wrong in the world at the moment. It's easy enough to find: from walruses massing in the arctic to the catastrophic loss of species around the globe. Things are changing and you can smell it.

Smell still ties us to the natural world. It is a language without words. If you don't believe me, then believe E.O. Wilson, whose seminal work Biophilia examines the link between humans and the natural world. In an interview with NOVA, published on the anniversary of his seminal book, Wilson talked about the dangers of disassociation: "I don't know. There's now a lot of concern, even consternation, among not just naturalists and poets and outdoors professionals but spreading through, I think, a better part of the educated public that we've cut ourselves off from something vital to full human psychological and emotional development." Bjork's version of Biophilia, based on Wilson's work hits screens next week at the Cinematheque in Vancouver. The film is a live concert version, based on Bjork's album of the same name. The film is well worth seeing even if you're not a Bjork fan, simply for a reminder that the world is a big and beautiful place and worth saving.

Let's return to Niels Stokholm's farm in Denmark for a moment. One of the most interesting sections of the film occurs as the old farmer talks about the human mind and the animal mind wanting and needing connection to each other. It is essentially biophilia summed up in few sentences. The truth of it is immediate and understandable to anyone who has ever loved an animal.

But in spite of the fundamental understanding that we humans need the world and other creatures to survive, as plain as the nose on your face you might say, we insist on making a stinking mess of the place. Piling up garbage, burning oil and tearing up anything that actually smells good (forests, grasslands, mountains), killing off half the world's species… So, we come back to the humble sense of smell, described in the University of Chicago study as "the most undervalued and under-appreciated of human senses." But it is also something of a deeper warning system; "like the canary in the coal mine," it's an indicator that there is something terribly wrong.

You are either a smart feller or fart smeller as my grandfather used to say. We still have the perfume of Katsura trees to comfort us -- but the minute those smells disappear, we got problems. I often wonder what Northern Alberta smells like at the moment, or Mainland China's more polluted regions.

I bought a perfume a while ago because it gave me a full-on flashback. The combination of summer sun on pine needles, wild berries and deep forest brought on a Proustian moment. The scent came from a scratch-and-sniff book of the film Bambi that I owned at the tender age of seven. The book included a page with wild strawberries in the deep of the forest. I scratched the image so much there was only ragged white paper where the strawberries once were. But the smell remained, etched in my memory as a time and place of peace and happiness and wildness.  [Tyee]

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