When you think about a TV show or a movie, the sense you associate it with is vision. “Did you see the latest Game of Thrones?” “I’m watching season 1 of Archer again, it’s awesome.” We associate film and television overwhelmingly with the sense of sight. Yes, obviously, the vast majority of movies have sound as well, but we tend to think of that as secondary.
But what about those other senses? If you’re like me and grew up on the Redwall books, you know that the right descriptive phrase can make you practically taste something – those famous Redwall feasts linger in the imagination long after the book is over. It takes just the right combination of suggestion and tactile verisimilitude to make you almost be able to taste something when you’re watching a movie.
Journey with me into the realm of the ignored senses, the sublime moments that happen on the screen but make you feel something, not in your heart, but in your mouth, or your fingers, or even your nose.
Taste – Leo McGarry on scotch
John Spencer has that gravely, Tom Waits-esque, measured kind of speech that makes you just want to listen to him talk for ages. Hearing him tell a story about a time he got drunk at an inopportune moment is powerful stuff. His character on The West Wing, Leo McGarry, is an alcoholic, and the way he talks about scotch is just powerful and haunting, but it also makes you really appreciate the scotch. When he talks about the ice cube, you can hear it drop in the background. The camera lingers on the golden liquid. The light reflects off the glittering crystal of the glass. Leo’s expression as he takes the glass, the slight shake of his hands as he drinks… alcohol is his demon, but oh, there’s a reason why it’s so damn tempting.
I love a good scotch, but at this stage in my life, it’s the stuff of a very special occasion. I just finished writing a novel, or a friend just got engaged. Not, it’s Tuesday and I’m bored. So it still has this kind of rare, mythical appeal to it, which is why this scene is so powerful. You can almost taste the forbidden, dangerous fruit.
Touch – Don Draper feels the grass
Mad Men sometimes doesn’t win points for subtlety, often hammering the audience with its metaphors (remember Joan and the golden birdcage from early on?), but when it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s near-perfect. When it comes at you sideways, when it doesn’t tell overtly, but show in fractions. Here, you have the maypole, the symbol of fertility, a fresh start in Spring – and Don Draper, the king of reinvention, is ready for something new.
All of that and more is conveyed by the way he touches the grass. For such a small gesture, it’s so fraught it’s almost indecent, like we’re watching something too private to be shown, which is kind of a funny feeling to have while watching a TV show, something that’s explicitly made to be seen.
Smell – Pretty much all of Perfume
Perfume: The Story of a Murder isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s certainly a unique one. The story of olfactory genius and homicidal maniac Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s quest for the perfect scent is one of the most original premises I’ve ever encountered, and the book it was based on is superb as well. Scent dominates the story – how do you convey that with words, sounds, and sights? Obliquely. By hinting at it. By showing and letting the imagination do the rest.
Grenouille’s otherworldly sense of smell is described in both the movie and the book as an almost mythological origin story – born in the worst-smelling part of Paris in abject filth, surrounded by the most awful scents imaginable. His entire being is dedicated to creating the opposite of that – the prefect scent, a personification of Beauty. Of course, he has to step on quite a few bodies to get there. In the end, when he’s about to be executed, we can’t quite tell if we’re rooting for him or not. But we can imagine what those people must have smelled, and the way the movie shows it, it’s right there, on the tip of your nose…
Putting it all together – The four-sense sensuality of MirrorMask
This is what bringing it all together looks like. The lush, close-up visuals of Helena’s transformation, the way the hands move around and on her, strongly evokes that sense of touch. The diffuse light and soft focus of the camera gives the whole scene a dreamlike quality just based on the visual. The singing, plus the subtle, discordant sound effects gives the scene a very creepy, ominous edge. The dust the marionettes sprinkle on Helena evokes the idea of an intoxicating scent.
In short, this scene shows the power of bringing in other senses beyond the obvious one in film and television. It’s… sensual. Close. Intimate. Our senses are our immediate experiences, unfiltered and unclouded by our higher order thoughts. And when storytelling can tap into something that basic, that primal, well… there’s a lot of wattage in those batteries.