In Kevin Williamson’s “The Tuesday” newsletter for today, he quotes a BBC reviewer calling a recent film “an immersive experience to stimulate all the senses.” As Kevin points out, this is absurd. Movies have been stimulating exactly two senses ever since the days of the silents, when theater operators provided a live piano accompaniment to the action on screen. You can get away with claiming three if there’s enough rumbling bass on the soundtrack, but taste and smell, the chemical senses, still require a trip to the concession stand.
It has been tried, though. In the 1950s the film industry devised all sorts of gimmicks to counter the threat of television by delivering an experience that viewers couldn’t get at home. Among all the electric shocks and flying skeletons and wide screens and 3-D, there were two almost simultaneous attempts at adding smell to the list of senses that were stimulated. Two sons of industry titans, Mike Todd Jr. and Walter Reade Jr., came up with rival systems and rushed them to market in 1959 and 1960. (National Review ran an item reviewing one of them, written by Joan Didion, of all people. If we were still working in our offices I would go to the back-issues shelf and insert a quote or two here.)
Providing scents to accompany a movie is trickier than it may sound, because they tend to linger in the air, so it’s hard to synchronize them with the action on screen. One of the systems used the theater’s ventilation system to suck scented air out, remove the scent particles (with less than total success, it seems), and blow it back out with the next scent. The other system had a separate dispenser attached to every seat; it would dispense a puff of scent and then a puff of vanilla, supposedly a neutral odor that would cover up what came before.
As it turned out, two scented films were enough. Installing all those tubes and fans and deodorizers was expensive, and stimulating another sense did not seem to improve anyone’s moviegoing experience. John Waters distributed scratch-and-sniff cards to viewers of his 1981 film Polyester, and there have been occasional experiments with adding smells to television and even opera, but the sorry truth seems to be that no one really wants to have odors blown in their face when they’re trying to concentrate on the performance — though you never know for sure. After all, the same savant who wrote the article linked above also confidently predicted that there would never be a market for telephones that let you see the person you’re talking to.