Smell-o-vision replaces television?!


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Leslie Cheung, right, wearing old flannel in Happy Together
  • Leslie Cheung, right, wearing old flannel in Happy Together
Have you ever walked past a group of young adults sitting on a busy sidewalk, dressed in rags, looking (and usually smelling) unwashed, and weren't sure whether they were homeless or just art students? This happens to me whenever there's nice weather in Chicago, as the Gene Siskel Film Center is next to the dorms of the School of the Art Institute. And I'm relieved whenever I see one of those kids enter the theater—it means they probably aren't struggling with homelessness.

Then again, homeless people love the movies too, though they tend to go most often when the weather is bad. I learned this first-hand from a regular at the soup kitchen where I volunteered in the second half of 2005 (Wedding Crashers had come out during a heat wave, I remember, and he'd seen it several times in its first week); during a stint of unemployment the following winter, I spotted a few homeless regulars at most of the weekday matinees I attended. At a screening of Terrence Malick's The New World, I was a few seats away from a jittery old man who sat with a bag of old newspaper on his lap and spent much of the movie muttering to himself. Roughly ten minutes into the film, he urinated in the aisle. I still don't know if this was because he hated The New World or because he liked it so much he didn't want to leave the auditorium.

Either way, he contributed something to the screening. Malick's film derives its visceral impact, in part, from its detailed reimagining of early colonial America—its attention to the mud, weeds, and woodland detritus with which Europeans contended in establishing their version of civilization here. As the man down the row reminded me, they probably had to contend with many bad smells too. His contribution had the effect of cutting through Malick's philosophical allusions and reminding us of the earthy naturalism that's no less crucial to his art.

I remembered that screening over the weekend when I revisited Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together at sold-out show at the Siskel Center. I was sitting next to a young man in a thick flannel shirt that smelled like it hadn't been washed in years. The scent—a combination of dried sweat and laundry hamper—befit the movie, not only because Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung wear lots of old flannel shirts in it, but because the movie's pervaded by a pungent sense of desire gone stale. Wong's stylish filmmaking (which, in Happy Together, conveys passionate emotional states through unexpected jumps from black-and-white to color, slow-motion motion sequences, and other effects) conjures up the sort of memories more vividly evoked by smells than by words. The cramped Buenos Aires apartment where the central couple of Happy Together falls madly out of love seems both cozy and dispiriting—a bit like the smell of an old laundry hamper.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.


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