Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Scent in Film: Rebellion of the Flowers

Rebellion of the Flowers (1992, Millie Goldsholl) from Chicago Film Archives on Vimeo.

Rebellion of the Flowers begins with the efforts of a farmer named Jan, who thoughtfully relates to working the land and growing a plot of flowers from seed. His relationship to the flowers is infused with spiritual reverence and humility, embracing the interdependent relationship between nature, the elements, and the work of human hands until something goes awry, and the essence of tyranny invades his gentle spirit.

Jealousy skews Jan's perspective as he becomes enraged by the biological inclination of flowers to turn towards the sun, a plant behavior known as heliotropism. The once gentle tiller of earth becomes consumed by the possessive notion that his flowers are disobedient and should bend towards him in reverence for the life he gave them, conflating his role with that of the divine.

Once in a while he felt that in the sight of the flowers he was G-d...An implausible annoyance swept through Jan...His anger wished the sun out of the sky. 

Farmer Jan is engorged with power and rage. His character is literally and figuratively consumed at the end of the film, but not without a touch of irony. Rebellion of the Flowers takes an interesting turn as an unnamed smell described as "a curious spice" appears in the story's resolution. Jan's body is drawn into the soil by tendrils in the flowerbed, where his body returns to the earth to nurture the plants he once gently tended. 

The next morning the sun came out. The flowers were beautiful in their brilliant color and there was a curious spice mixed with the sweetness of their perfume.

A "curious spice" isn't a descriptor for the putrescence of bodily decay, which raises an olfactory question. What smell did Jan's body contribute to the earthbound flowers he raised? To answer this query one must sniff beyond the film's referenced scents of freshly turned soil, sprouting green seedlings and delightful flower scents. 

My olfactory mind is informed by scentscapes in New York and Michigan, so I lean into encounters with wild sweet woodruff (Gallium odorata) in the Ann Arbor summer landscape. The plant's leaves possess an herbaceous, spicy and warm scent that intensifies when the leaves are dried. This is notable in sweet woodruff specimens found in herbariums. 

Sweet woodruff dresses the air without usurping the aroma of other plants like an olfactory tyrant. This is how I imagine the aroma of a transformed and somewhat redeemed Jan, entombed in humus against the victorious scent of the flowers. Perhaps you have some ideas of your own, dear reader...

Notes & Curiosities:

Everyone possesses a unique compendium of aromatic experiences based on personal life experience. What does your olfactory mind reference when you watch Rebellion of the Flowers? Can you imagine what it would be like if you were a perfumer assigned to create a collection of four wearable scents inspired by scenes in Rebellion of the Flowers? There's a bevy of metaphors and literal interpretations worthy of exploration. What would you create?

Dried sweet woodruff is available from Mountain Rose Herbs. I made a perfume-grade tincture with them that reminds me of summer every time I smell the infusion on a perfume blotter. Feeling crafty? Aromatic sachets filled with a blend of lavender and sweet woodruff are also quite lovely, and easy to sew by hand.

The "sun" in the name sunflower is informed by heliotropism. So is the Latin word for the turnsole plant, which was called solsequium ("sun-follower") in herbals. Turnsole joined woad and indigo as vegetable-based pigments used by medieval manuscript illuminators. Solsequium would be a great name for a line of perfumes inspired by sun-warmed plants and medieval illuminated manuscripts. Take that to your imaginarium. 

If you're familiar with the scent of morning-cut hay dried under a summer sun, or the creamy, sweet, vanilla, and nut-like nuances in sweetgrass, you’re acquainted with sweet woodruff's coumarin-scented kin. Coumarin repels pests that would otherwise make a feast of a plant as coumarin tastes bitter to them. Humans aren't bothered by the tastes of small amounts of coumarin, which is why they find May wine and tonka bean flavored desserts and confectionary appealing. 

Need to know more about the science of coumarin? Read this research paper:  Carneiro, Aitor, Maria J. Matos, Eugenio Uriarte, and Lourdes Santana. 2021. "Trending Topics on Coumarin and Its Derivatives in 2020" Molecules 26, no. 2: 501.

Image of whole and shaved tonka beans ©Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved.