Forget Sight & Sound, What About Taste & Smell?

By
Dan Wilkinson
Still From John Waters' 'Polyester' (1981)

As you might expect, the other three senses have been mostly neglected by cinema throughout its history. For most of us, a darkened room and an illuminated screen is all you need to achieve complete immersion. But others have opted for a more explicit route.

Of those who have sought to experiment with a more immersive sensorial experience include legendary shock auteur John Waters for his 1981 film Polyester, which had a more adventurous budget than his previous features.

Making use of the schoolboy favourite scratch ‘n’ sniff cards and reflecting the protagonist’s sense of smell, audiences were given an ‘Odorama’ card’. When a number flashed on-screen, they would scratch the corresponding number on the card and sniff away. The smells ­– appropriate to each narrative moment ­– ranged from roses to farts. Using the catchy tagline, ‘First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!’, Waters’ sensorial immersion was clearly parody rather than a sincere attempt to push cinema forward.  He actually lost money thanks to Polyester, though the Odorama cards still sell for decent money online.

An 'Odorama' Card that would've been handed out to audiences for 'Polyester'.

There’s also the 4D experience, most notably through Disneyland’s Honey I Shrunk The Audience and the South Korean company CJ’s reality-augmenting ‘4D Plex’. These usually involve seats jerking around and in CJ’s case being (lightly) punched in the kidneys during Kung Fu Panda to simulate fight scenes. This has left some moviegoers feeling nauseous and out of breath throughout, which definitely mirrors any experience of getting through Kung Fu Panda.

Most recently, the vaping company Blu had a film event dedicated to a cinema of the senses, showing recent blockbusters Gravity and X Men: Days of Future Past at Screen on the Green in Islington, London. The sensory experience came from a taste menu prepared by Dr. Charles Spence – a neurogastronomist and professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, best most known for matching pop music to in flight food for British Airways.

I went to both nights of the event and various moments throughout the movies were associated with taste sensations, going into space worked well with popping candy and salted fudge was an interesting play on the mixed feelings of a tense romance scene. People were also encouraged to vape throughout, which gave the look of a classic noir cinema but smelt less of stale tobacco and more of blueberry and menthol.

There were also fragrances complementing the action onscreen, with whirring fans being used at the side to spread the smells. Not everything worked though: at one point smoky bacon was used to relate the intensity of a shuttle going down in Gravity and the texture of goji berries felt irrelevant to the final battle in X-Men. Dr Spence related how big a difference little sensations can be to fully immersing an audience before the screening, he talked about adding a €1 fan to a million pound car simulator helped simulate the experience of driving faster.

So, is sensory cinema the future? Popular interest in unorthodox screenings is at an all time high  – think 2001 with a live orchestra, Jaws in a swimming pool, ‘Secret Cinema’… – so it makes sense that the gimmick would return. Perhaps this all expresses a frustration with the quality of mainstream cinema, or perhaps audiences are just bored of sight & sound. I hope it’s not the latter.  

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