There is a reason why supermarket designers pump the air from the bakery into the front of the store, and why estate agents (realtors) advise having fresh brewed coffee when prospective buyers view your house. The reason is that smells have an incredibly powerful connection to our memories, emotions and subconscious.
A particular smell can cause us to have vivid and deeply emotional recollections. What would a visit to the seaside be like without the smell of the ocean? How evocative is the smell of rain on dry earth, or the first scent of autumn from the leaves on the ground? What of the scent of a lover on the pillow, or the special, weirdly alien, smell of a new born child. Our experience of the world would be so much poorer without smell.
Diane Ackerman puts it well in ‘A Natural History of the Senses’:
Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.
So why, in our quest for more compelling, immersive and engaging cinematic experiences have we failed to deliver olfactory stimulation to match the aural and ocularaura experience? Sure, we had Smell-O-Vision in the 1960s film ‘Scent of Mystery’, and ‘Behind the Great Wall’ released just 3 weeks earlier in AromaRama, neither of which were critical or commercial successes. There again the big commercial success for 3D cinema, before ‘Avatar’ was ‘The Stewardesses’ (“see the lusty stewardesses leap from the screen onto your lap”).
Could the next big thing for cinema, after 3D, be the serious pursuit of odoriferous cinema? Ridley Scott recognises the importance of smell:
But Gladiator is one of my favourite adventures because I really loved going into the world. I loved creating the world to the degree where you could almost smell it.
There have been several attempts, many restricted, like ‘Spy Kids: All The Time In The World 4D’ to scratch-and-sniff cards. Sadly this is a long way off an immersive experience. In the 1970s we were subject to a host of disaster movies, one of which, ‘Earthquake’ had “Sensurround” which was very loud, low frequency rumbles which used to shake our cinemas. The scratch-and-sniff equivalent would have been a subtitle inviting the audience to bounce up and down in their seats.
Come on guys, let’s not let the recent pace of innovation in the cinema slacken, let’s grab this opportunity and really make a visit to the cinema one that panders to all the senses. Just imagine how much more compelling some of our recent movies would have been:
- · Pirates of the Caribbean: Sea salt and unwashed sailors
- · Harry Potter: Sulphur, magnesium and adolescent hormones
- · Toy Story: New plastic and old toys
- · Black Swan: Athletic sweat and grease paint
- · The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: ?
On second thoughts, I’m not particularly enamoured of the idea of Smell-O-Vision for ‘The Stewardesses’, I think it would get right up my nose.