Friday, January 18, 2013

Scent in Film: The Perfume Man from Taksim

The Perfume Man from Taksim from Calvin Walker on Vimeo.

Film is a challenging medium if one seeks to capture the mystique of perfume. You can't see what is being smelled because scent is invisible. What you can see is how scent affects people and when the right filmmaker is behind the camera those emotions are free of stereotype and hack monologue (the later evidenced by last year's ad for Chanel No. 5 with Brad Pitt which the The Telegraph's Clive James described as Brad Pitt "...speaking through his armpit.").

Filmmaker Calvin Walker posted "The Perfume Man from Taksim" in early January. Walker, who works for the French National Film Commission, is self taught and migrated from photography to film as his preferred medium of expression. He was at the Istanbul International Short Film Festival in November 2012, promoting his short film "Blanche", when he decided to explore Taksim Square. That is where he found the subject of his film, "The Perfume Man from Taksim" which is shot in black and white.

"One afternoon, while exploring the area with my friend, I came across this gentleman in the street and was intrigued by his old wooden box of bottles. He seemed very friendly, so I sat with him for a little while. We could only communicate with smiling, nodding and pointing, since neither of us spoke the other's language. We bought some perfume he made for us while we were filming." says Walker.

There is no dialogue in "The Perfume Man from Taksim," only the sound of Peggy Lee's plaintive voice singing the Rogers and Hart classic "Where or When". The song's theme of déjà vu is an ode to memory that perfectly illustrates what happens on camera and in the mind of someone who smells perfume. Watching the perfumer compounding a scent using a hypodermic needle and fragrance materials from a chic, but unusual portable display case invites curiosity and defies description. The viewer can't help wondering what the perfume smells like, though how it is used and the fact that it smells good can be intimated from the perfumer's gestures.

The identity of the perfumer was and still is unknown. "I recently send some emails to some places near where I filmed him, in the hope that someone might be able to put me in touch with him if he is a well-known local character." says Walker. "So far, I've had no news. I'll keep trying to find out who he is, but I am beginning to get the feeling I may never know, in which case he'll remain the mysterious perfume vendor."

How did the perfume compounded by the mysterious perfumer smell? "It was mainly flowery and fruity. Perhaps a little strong for Europeans, but probably more adapted to Turkish or Arabic tastes," says Walker, who admits that scent probably plays a bigger role than he's conscious of when it comes to filmmaking. "I tend to search for ways of conveying atmospherics, but I never think of smells."

Walker does have a few favorites when it comes to scent, "I have a few favorite food smells such as the Julie mango (a special variety of mango that is very different from all the others). Apparently when I was a very young child in Jamaica, I was a mango fiend and used to eat my weight in mangoes! I’m also very fond of freshly ground ginger and carrot juice. It’s probably a case of both smell and taste. I have no particular favorite perfume, although lavender is very evocative for me. It reminds of lavender water my mother used both as a scent and a headache remedy when I was a child." 

You can see other short films by Calvin Walker on Vimeo. Glass Petal Smoke likes "Fusion Froide". You learn more about Calvin Walker on his webpage

The Julie mango is less fibrous than most mangoes and has a distinctive pineapple note. It is known for its juicy and delicious flavor. 

If you want to understand Turkish culture and history Glass Petal Smoke recommends reading the books of Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk won The Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.