I saw Inception the other night. I know there’s been some discussion and confusion. Well, I know exactly what happened: I lost eleven dollars and three hours of my life that I will never get back. By the time we were at the interminable snow-fort/falling van scene, my legs were numb and I was so bored I kept mentally inserting either James Bond on skis or the abominable snow monster from Rudolph into the spectacle before me – anything to relieve the tedium. Talk about an excellent inception – wouldn’t the Bumble (preferably accompanied by Yukon Cornelius, Hermey, Burl Ives and some cheesy orchestral music) have been perfect in that scene? I’m telling you. Instead I finally got up and left – walked up and down the hall awhile, getting the blood flowing, and thought about perfume.
How much should we have to think about perfume, as opposed to just wearing it? If I were going to the opera, I’d do some research first. I’d look it up online, learn the story, research maybe the composer, or (depending on the venue) the performers or the particular production. Otherwise I’m just sitting there struggling to read the libretto, having no clue what’s going on because they’re singing in another language. Sure, I think the music of Turandot is achingly beautiful (go ahead and laugh, it’s probably cliché, I don’t care, I love it) but if I’m going to have a reaction other than oooh, pretty! I need more information.
Wall-art has a bit more gray area (no pun intended.) I live in D.C. and spend a fair amount of time visiting the National Gallery of Art, the Freer, the Hirshhorn, etc., although I am no particular connoisseur. I’m unapologetically old school – I like representational art, and I have to read up to understand what I’m looking at with a lot of modern art. (Aside: the only time I have behaved badly in a gallery as an adult was viewing the installation in the East Wing of an “artist” my 88-year-old father and I still refer to as “light-bulb guy.”) Yves Klein’s show at the Hirshhorn probably seems a lot more interesting if you know about Klein blue. There are layers of information in almost any painter’s work. You can be charmed by the Dutch masters’ blowsy, larger-than-life floral arrangements – the incredible realism and detail – and that’s good enough, yes? (Also: they’re on the way to the Vermeers.) But it’s also interesting to know that many of the elements – the fading flowers, the broken petals, the insects – were meant to signify (and depending on your perspective, celebrate) the transitory nature of our existence. Is looking at one of those master paintings “better” with more information? I don’t know.
I could argue with myself all evening (even better with friends like you, preferably over a pitcher of adult beverages) about perfume and this sort of background knowledge. I’m not arguing the perfume should smell “good” – I like all sorts of scents that don’t exactly soothe the senses. But I want the application of perfume to trigger something – something other than boredom, one hopes. How much should I know about a perfume’s intention? Its provenance? As Carmencanada points out, the downside of the “celebrity perfumer” is you’ve got Alberto Morillas’ name behind a scent that might as well come in a BBW canister for all the artistry it displays. (Is this a criminal waste of talent? Absolutely. Why do perfumers take these jobs? It must be like beating your head against the wall in slow motion while drinking a vat of white musk, maybe with a chaser of vanilla.)
Learning about perfume comes in handy in ways that enchant me. Let’s say you fall in love with a vintage bottle of YSL Paris – and why shouldn’t you? I did, and I don’t even like roses. Well, then, with a little research that could take you in all sorts of directions. It was done by Sophia Grojsman, who has a reputation for astonishing roses in perfumery. You could make a game of it – pursue other fragrances she’s done, see how you feel about those. Or you could fall in love with the note itself – rose – and sniff around through various other perfumers’ interpretations – how about Malle’s Lipstick Rose? Something really different like a rose-oudh? The Rosines, an entire line devoted to displaying various facets of rose? This continues to be one of my favorite ways to explore new perfumes – by category (house, nose, note.) And that takes a little research.
But in the end, how much should we have to know about a perfume to “properly” “appreciate” it? To appreciate the Humiecki & Graefs, for instance, with their wackadoo prosetry – do I really need to know about the state of how men cry to “get” Skarb? Or is all their blurbage just a winking joke, a way of making me pay attention to the brand, rather like the antics of Etat Libre and the names of their scents? The chances are almost zero that I’m running around in a scent called Don’t Get Me Wrong, Baby, I Don’t Swallow (is that the one with the penis the bottle? Oh, wait, no, it’s Secretions Magnifique.) But that’s my loss, right? I’m so put off before I even try it. I’m too close-minded.
I yearn for the days of the old-fashioned marketing myths and delusions – you know, this perfume is all about being sexy or mysterious or powerful or innocent or transgressive. I can love Opium not just for the way it smells but because it’s called … Opium! Or Poison. (Or Addict, or Rush.) Beyond that, what do we really need to know about them? Nothing. Ingredients eco-sourced and collected by (unionized) nuns at dusk? Done by [insert famous perfumer here]? Nope, none of that. I don’t have to read any ad copy to understand how via my perfume I’ve been a bad, bad girl. I can just look at the name or the image and know it.
Does a fragrance have balance? Is it pleasing, does it surprise? These are some of the questions Angela asks on Now Smell This, as she compares perfume to another art – the preparation of fine food. In the end (and somewhat ironically) I think I’m going to drop perfume in a category close to food – even though I don’t necessarily love too much of one with the other. Perfume can provide the same kind of highbrow and lowbrow thrills. It can provide instant joy, or be something that requires a bit of a development of a taste for a note, the way one acquires a taste for oysters. I think that perfume has, for me, an element of immediacy that food does, less distancing than visual or musical art appreciation, if that makes any sense at all. (Is smell and taste more primal, more fundamental than sight or sound?) Okay, I’m going to pour myself a drink and argue with myself over that last bit.
Also, due to a last minute scheduling change, I will be away today at an undisclosed location with Diva and Enigma, getting in touch with our senses via funnel cakes, arcade games, and barf-inducing rides like the Himalaya. They better be playing Heart’s Barracuda. Rock on.