In the cult classic “Harold and Maude” (Dir. Hal Ashby, 1971), an unlikely romance develops between a young, death-obsessed man-child Harold (Bud Cort) and an eccentric octogenarian (Ruth Gordon) whose zest for life transforms the way he sees the world. In an early scene, she takes him back to her wunderkammern of a house and shows him her “odorifics” machine, or what seems to be a kind of tape-recorder of smells. Maude:
Then I became infatuated with these, my odorifics. Give the nose a treat, I thought, a kind of olfactory bandwidth. So I began first with the easiest. Roast beef, old books, mown grass. And Mexican farmyard. Here’s one you’ll like: Snowfall on 42nd Street.
Maude gives Harold a face-mask attached to a tube that runs from the machine, which begins cranking as he sniffs and describes the smells: subway, perfume, cigarettes. But it's the scent of snow that stops him in his tracks.
Roast beef. Grass. Old Books. Snow. Sound familiar? They’re four of Christopher Brosius’s CB I Hate Perfume and early Demeter scents, and more importantly, the Odorifics machine is a prefiguration of Headspace Technology (or perhaps, more accurately, The Madeleine — see below), pioneered and developed by Swiss chemist Roman Kaiser in 1975.
In Headspace, the scent molecules around an object are captured, their molecular structure analyzed through a technique like gas chromatography, then documented, and interpreted by chemist/perfumers. This data can be used as a blueprint by perfumers to reconstruct the notes, accords, and scents of things whose essences are either difficult or impossible to harvest, like gardenia or leather.
English artist Amy Radcliffe recently created a fantasy version of portable headspace technology she calls The Madeleine, something like a smell camera that would make capturing smells (“scent-ography”) available to everyone. (I’ve written about how technology’s infatuation with smell seems to be increasing.)
I watched “Harold and Maude” long before I was ever interested in perfume, but I think it's been 20 years since I've seen it! It was on the Sundance Channel tonight, and it’s amazing to see this visionary scene about scent from a 1971 film. It's visionary not only about the technology that will be available, but also about the kinds of seemingly mundane things like snow that we'd want to smell. (Snow, in fact, won Demeter two Fragrance Foundation Awards — like the perfume Oscars — in 2000.)
Watching "Harold and Maude" again, you can also see how it will go on to influence "Rushmore," and "Hotel Grand Budapest" director Wes Anderson. Bud Cort’s character is a prototype of almost every one of Anderson’s film antiheroes...
Scents and New Sensitivities (about Odorifics, scent technologies, and Christopher Brosius)