I think most cinematically literate people are aware that John Waters exploited the decades-old yet ignored concept of making the nose an integral part of the cinematic experience when he made his sixth feature, Polyester, in 1981. I’ve known that since I was a teenager, and I knew that it relied on the use of scratch and sniff cards distributed to the audience. But I’ve never been to a screening where that happened; how often do those happen? I don’t even know what the smells represented on the card were, although I can well imagine at least a couple of them.
Whether consciously or otherwise, Polyester refers back to the grandaddy of all olfactory motion picture experiences, Scent of Mystery, which exploited the exciting and surely soon-to-be-ubiquitous technique called “Smell-O-Vision,” which featured the immortal tagline, “First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!” Smell-O-Vision used a far more ambitious system involving pipes and stuff. (When the mechanism didn’t work properly on the first night, the fate of Smell-O-Vision was sealed.) Oddly, Scent of Mystery had a pretty good cast, including Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lorre, and Denholm Elliott. (I was about to write, “in the title role”—but caught myself. Elliott was the star of the movie.)
The ten smells on the Polyester Odorama card seem very witty to me: they were, for the record, “1. Roses, 2. Flatulence, 3. Model Airplane Glue, 4. Pizza, 5. Gasoline, 6. Skunk, 7. Natural Gas, 8. New Car Smell, 9. Dirty Shoes, and 10. Air Freshener.” I also didn’t know about this gleeful bit of prankishness on Waters’ part:
In the original theatrical showings, the scents were arranged by number, with audiences instructed to scratch the card when the appropriate number flashed onscreen. Audiences never knew what they’d be smelling, which was half the fun: While flowers might be onscreen when the number flashed, a pair of smelly tennis shoes would be shoved into the scene at the last second. No one wins a prize for guessing what the gleefully subversive Waters wanted his audience to smell.
I’d bet money that there are DM readers out there who have attended screenings of Polyester with the original cards—anyone care to report on the experience? Did Waters fake out the audience, as reported above?
Waters’ Odorama had a curious coda in 2003, when Nickelodeon decided to use the general concept in the third installment of their Rugrats franchise, Rugrats Go Wild. The trouble is, they didn’t stop with the general concept; they also used the copyrighted term Odorama as well as the logo. Irritated, Waters threatened to sue but was stymied when he learned that New Line Cinema, the studio that released Polyester, had let the copyright lapse. In any case, Rugrats Go Wild executive producer Julia Pistor somewhat conveniently claimed that it was a heartfelt homage: “We loved all that great stuff William Castle and John Waters pioneered. ... We loved that low-tech interactivity. That’s what inspired our ‘Odorama.’ ” In the movie John Waters: This Filthy World, Waters is heard to grumble, “a check would have been an homage.”
Here is a theatrical trailer for Polyester:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
John Waters PSA on smoking