A recent story on American Public Media’s Marketplace Morning Report described the resurrection of the idea of Smell-o-vision — you know, the ludicrous notion that smells could be scripted to emanate from a television to enhance the story. The latest incarnation of this notion — reincarnation, excuse me — is being tried at the Crossing Europe Film festival, which recently came through Linz, Austria.
An inventor developed a $260,000 machine, a veritable smell projector that creates “a smooth, gentle cake of air moving slowly through the room, transporting little compartments of smells,” the inventor said. And then the smell vanishes, making way for the next one and avoiding unintentionally nauseating combinations.
Great. We’ve mastered that. I personally have no desire to smell Bogart’s cigarette, knowing that in a few minutes it’ll probably clash with Bacall’s perfume. Yuk.
Seriously, though: technology is grand. But should we do things just because we can? To me, adding smells to video is like going back into every good book you read past the age of eight and shoving in pictures. Where once consumers of art met the artist halfway, a great many of us now seem too lazy to even step off the curb. Even Hemingway, who used adjectives as if they were expensive pills with nasty side effects, managed to create a five-senses picture with only words. Isn’t it more fulfilling to let our minds fill in what the writer leaves us to puzzle out?
Video is no different. Pairing it with state-of-the-art audio made sense. It works for our sensory make-up to link excellent pictures with just-as-excellent sound because most of our sensory experience of new things involves sight and sound first. When we get closer, smell, taste, and occasionally touch enhance the perception.
A good movie creates the atmosphere that allows the mind to complete the multi-dimensional painting. I can imagine the aromas of Downton Abbey. Of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. The kitchen in Eat Drink Man Woman. And then there are the smells I don’t need; they would be unpleasant, and perhaps sensory overload: the carnage on the beach in the opening of Saving Private Ryan, the smoky wreckage of conquered Warsaw in The Pianist.
No doubt, an olfactory stimulus — smell, aroma, funk, whatever you want to call it — can conjure up wonderfully detailed memories from great distances in time and space. They are not sensory lightweights, these nose enticers. But a good smell to one person is a face-scruncher to another. To float a “cake” of it towards theatergoers is to miss an opportunity for description, engagement, reaction — all the things that make a reader or viewer repose in the artist the crucial trust that leads to enlightenment.
To miss all that by slapping some perfume on Hollywood would…well, it would stink.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr