Category Archives: cinema + perfume

FRIVOLITIES: : : : : VIOLET IDA + BLOUSY by MILLER HARRIS (2019)

 

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Miller Harris describes its new floral fruitstravaganza as ‘a delicious and wistful flirtation in a fabulously cinematic perfume of rose swirling with strawberry liqueur.’ I would describe it as more like drinking cassis liqueur neat through a silver straw while doing the rodeo on a gigantesque disco peach melba.

 

 

 

Whichever way you look at it, this is a busy perfume.

 

 

 

From Fragrantica:

 

Head Notes: Pink Pepper CO2, Coriander seed, Davana, Cinnamon, Green Mandarin

Heart Notes: Iris Concrete, Violet, Rose absolute Morocco, Rose oil Turkey, Carnation, Hawthorn, Strawberry Liqueur

Lasting Impressions: Tonka Bean, Sandalwood, Oakmoss, Vanilla

If I was taken a little aback by this perfume for its in-your-faceness, I also thought it was quite unobvious with its sweet frictions of unexpected ingredients (oil of davana segueing into hawthorn and strawberries etc ); fun and out there; a  bit different. I can imagine a dressed up young diva of various persuasions rocking it quite happily until the early hours.
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I often wear perfume in the dark watching cinema. And last night while we indulged in the grotesque decadence of Federico Fellini’s colourful Casanova (1976) I randomly reached out for the the bottle of Violet Ida I was given last year.
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(It was also strange, in the opening scene of the film, seeing Dr Whom and Burning Bush in the crowd at the Venice carnival  – I had no idea that we were so old)
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While the name of this scent might evoke a scene from the Bloomsbury set, rather Virginia Woolf writes a postcard to her second cousin on the coast of Hove, and the ‘iris beurre’ melts like suede into a vanilla ambered cushion on skin with a delicate carrot’s breath at the gentle opening, on me at least, this perfume, though pleasing (and very wearable: I will certainly get through the whole bottle ; the orris note has a pleasantly grey mauve temperate fullness, the end note very me in its ambered, hot simplicity) somehow it still doesn’t quite capture my image of what the Miller Harris brand used to embody: a subtle Englishness  – pared down, clear; nature-inspired; a tad severe – that has ceded to a more technicolour frivolity. Yes, there were Noix Tubereuse and Figue Amere in the original MH range, which embraced the nightlife and the occasional feather boa, but since the perfumer and founder Lyn Harris left the perfumery in different hands, the company seems to have veered in an entirely different direction – which can be enjoyable ( I know that brands under different artistic direction must evolve with the times ): but also a little jarring.
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Filed under cinema + perfume, Flowers, Fruity Floral, Iris

THE SMELL OF SOCIAL SEPARATION

 

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Snuggled up in the nest with the cat in the dark, we settled into a day of late afternoon viewing with the 2019 Palme D’Or winning Parasite by Korean director Bong Joon Hoo, a film that has generated a lot of excitement this year and is even being tipped as a potential Best Picture possibility at the Oscars.

 

 

Although initially a bit wary of the almost farcical, exaggerated aspects of the acting that reminded me of some of the Japanese social comedies I don’t always take to (the film deals with the widely disparate stratums of South Korean society, as an impoverished family living in the basement of a house in Seoul struggling  to make a living find a way to infiltrate a very wealthy, protected high class family), the brilliance of the composition, camera work, percussive, acrobatic movement and ingenious flow and pace of the madcap narrative soon put any doubts about the skill of the director in front of our eyes and we were fully immersed and LIT UP ; for me, when your reality changes when watching a film and you find yourself bouncing up and down the stairs and your own house is tinged with the membrane of the screen, you know you are in the hands of a self assured director who knows what they are doing.

 

 

 

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The Kims live hand to mouth, day to day, even though the children (pictured) are well educated and are thus able to pose as a tutor and art therapist/child psychologist by winging it and having the devil may care balls to do so as they have nothing to lose (or so they think). Scrubbed up, they are able to hoodwink the immaculate, gullible mother and wife who dwells within an exquisite, if cavernous, piece of gated, modern architecture that is surrounded by Korean topiaries and silence. Soon ensconced in this unimaginable luxe and space the family – all of them employed, as a driver and a housekeeper after various ruses to rid the former staff – are quickly sniffed out by their social superiors: the child prodigy/mischievous imp that is the mogul and wife’s nine year old son who ‘innocently’, yet almost scornfully notes that the new staff in the house ‘all smell the same’, prompts the family, in panicked lock-down mode,to realise that they will henceforth all have to use separate washing powders/fabric softeners in order to rid themselves of their olfactory stain of poverty and kinship.

 

 

 

This is not easy. The smell goes deeper, is ingrained at the abode level; the odour of their ‘semi-basement’ where they fold pizza boxes for a living having permeated their pores, their skin and breath : there is no escape from it. Mr Kim, dignified, gentle, good natured (until riled and demeaned to the point where his pride and the violence endured….. I won’t give any spoilers but the film goes demented half way through; exhilarating to behold in its slapstick visceral energy)… .. humours and placates his boss; says all the right things, but ‘never crosses the line’, except, crucially, as he later confides to his wife in an astonishingly erotic and tense scene in the living room where the ‘parasites’ (or is it the other way round) are hidden unknowingly in the space in the dark,  in the unavoidable terms of his smell, as the parents, invigilating their son camping alone in the garden (a mesmerising tableau, the tent glowing in the green of the night like a talisman of the 1%) are disturbed by the familiar odour of the family : ‘Where is that smell coming from? I can smell Mr Kim’…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mrs Park has, until this moment, not consciously noted the scent of the family living among her but after his comments that he smells like ‘a sour radish….no, a cloth that has been hung up to dry and it does cross the line‘; we also see her stoppering her nostrils when being driven by Mr Kim, who is becoming increasingly paranoid and humiliated by the smell difference that has naturally risen up between the two families because of their vastly differing economic circumstances; a feeling I am also familiar with myself (the paranoia called autobromidrophobia I have experienced a lot living here in Japan where I become neurotically hyperaware, of my smell as a Caucasian, as a perfume freak, as a man in middle age (in a country where people submit themselves to intravenous drips on a regular basis to rid themselves of their ‘old smell’; purify the blood.. );  ;I feel the would-be chauffeur’s pain and mortification keenly.

 

 

 

 

Smell separation is not only linked to racism, age, and genetic difference: as the film so adroitly encapsulates, it also, quite obviously, comes from money. Even in my neighbourhood here in Kamakura, a well-to-do area with the highest citizen’s tax in the prefecture,  though our rent is dirt cheap and we live in a ramshackle bohemian horror house, you notice it: dotted among the detached houses with their cherry blossom, camellia and osmanthus trees are the ‘ko-po’, or ‘co-ops’ (we lived in one for eleven years before moving to our current house after the earthquake), and there is no doubt that the people living in them are very different. On all levels. The occupants in our old place, a worn down family of five squeezed into the apartment above the one we used to live in, are clearly of a much lower social class than their very ‘respectable’, polite and financially comfortable neighbors ; they dress in wrong sized jumble sale clothes; they smell of hair or of very strong fabric softener; fleece jackets sharing the same olfactory link. The friendly people a few doors down,  in a place I snootily sometimes refer to jokingly as Skid Row because the difference is so stark to everyone around them. all smoke, and the smell of stale cigarettes is always noticeable whenever you pass by the house (another difference: they are more friendly than a lot of other people around here;always say hello to me, cigarette hanging from the mouth of the smiling, leopard-skin coated grandmother…)

 

 

 

 

 

But it is on the bus that the distinctions, the social separation, is the most obvious and distinct. The bus – which everyone who cannot or has no desire to walk down the hill to Kitakamakura station but instead wants the convenience of Ofuna – must take, is a place of well to do people sitting upright, chatting politely or in silence, and sometimes the more socially unfortunate get on and you can smell them : the difference is undeniable. Like the sheltered Mrs Park in her stainless whites in the back of the Mercedes Benz unsuccessfully attempting to cover her nose from the smell emanating from the person in front, the passengers on the bus (including myself) do the same – it is a natural reflex – inhuman, snobbish and judgemental though that may seem. Olfactory disdain. Smell transcending rationality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kims live in a ‘semi-basement’, at street level, where drunkards piss in the street by their window, never too far from the sewerage systems that later make their existence very known ; yet there are other (a)basements…….down flights of nuclear bunker-like stairs, dungeons; replete with much greater stench coming later as the movie – a black comedy that turns into a thriller-like horror film- but simultaneously never takes itself too seriously –  takes us into even worse layers of social deprivation and dirt; filth; even as the beautiful, airy, structure in which the Parks live above – the physicality of this film, the sense of place and space is brilliantly fine-tuned – you feel the verticality architecturally in your body……. represents a beautiful, clean and fragrant place you can physically, if not necessarily psychologically , breathe in freely (you just know that the interior of this house smells very pleasant: a carefully constructed place  in which the inhabitants can live out their individual, isolated and lonely existences.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fact is, rich people do smell different. Their houses smell different. Their bodies, their clothes, their bedrooms, smell  different. I know from experience. Smaller houses, with lesser means, families living together in carpeted residences, generate their own specific odours; your friends’ houses smelled alien and totally different when you were a child and you cycled round, entering an unfamiliar world that was so distinct from your own house, whose particular, uniquely familial odour you were probably immune to. Children, especially the smell sensitive, notice these things very keenly. I did. And yet, when later in life I came into contact with the more privileged, even aristocratic people I met at university and was invited to their immense, vacant, tapestried,  old houses in the countryside, I was in contact with an atmosphere, both visual and olfactory, that was entirely different from the people I had grown up with. Their houses had a totally different smell; the smell of space, history, wood, heritage, furniture, gardens, stoves, pressed linens, and I suddenly realized my (lower) middle class origins very potently in comparison. At cell level. Their bathrooms smelled of blue soap placed coldly on the porcelain guest basins, with the grounds, and tall oaks, and probably deer, out beyond – not an amalgamation of all my family’s toiletries, my dad’s shaving products, our Shield soap, the Old Spice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are people trapped in the Parks’ house. Underground. It is claustrophobic to watch. It also put me in mind of a very strange experience I had in 2002 when house-sitting in London, in Hampstead, one of the richest areas in London, with beautiful houses and mansions all leading down to Hampstead Heath, with its views over the entirety of London and where Watership Down rabbits run freely among the brush and the trees and you feel high up and removed ; I also worked there for a while, commuting up from Brixton and would walk there; it is an area that was, and always will be, economically impossible for me to even dream about  living in (not that I would want to, in all honesty – smugness bores me, with all of its fritters and rigmaroles), but it was nevertheless fascinating to be staying there, not in a bunker beneath the earth this time , but up in the attic. A place where I caught pneumonia, or rather, it had been generating in my body slowly but surely….we were both tired and listless there; but as D had gone up to Norwich to prepare for his brother’s wedding a few days later and I took over house-sitting duties  I found myself alone, very sickly, unable to move, in the foetal position in the tiny bedroom upstairs, sequestered; immobile; impossible to eat, or do anything for several days, the smell of the house and its boilers – and myself ….unpleasant – something rotten despite the other slow-drying laundry and fragrances that welled up in the space to my delirious consciousness……… you could sense the class difference, vividly, at gut level, and couldn’t escape it, physically nor mentally ; osmosed into my body to the extent that just writing this now I can smell it perfectly; it will never leave me.

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually dragging myself, unwashed, dishevelled, to a local doctor and pleading for help, she quickly listened to my rattling lungs and diagnosed severe pneumonia. Although I am a person who never gets fevers, never; on this occasion I had left it so long that I was up to about 41 degrees and in an emergency condition; not quite there; vulnerable, susceptible and stinking ; they stripped me virtually naked to wash me down; cool me off, and I spent eight days in hospital, often in a semi-delirious state. Unable to wash for several days after,  I was aware of my greasy hair, my stench, and I remember crying in gratitude when Duncan came in with emergency toiletry supplies and combed my sorry strands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smell consciousness is ultimately what also sets off the feverishly exhilarating denouement of Parasite, when the patriarch’s supercilious revulsion over the smell of one of the characters leads to one person being so incensed, his sense of self respect so fully shattered, a bloodbath of almost comical proportions ensues (this is not how you want a garden party to end); yet it is done in such a way as to feel dream-like, semi-comical (savage) and surreal while simultaneously making its points very clear: money does divide people. It separates people into the clean and the unclean; the privileged and the poor. This film set off fireworks in my brain, smell memories coming to the surface; the strata of olfaction that are at the base levels of intinction : how we see each other……………………………………….how we smell each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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AN ALIEN TOUCHED DOWN IN SHINJUKU :: OPIUM VINTAGE PARFUM by YVES SAINT LAURENT (1977, in 2019)

 

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Michael Judd is a brilliant photographer, filmmaker and performance artist from Australia who lives in Nagoya and Osaka : like us, he has something of a double life, teaching in the week for four days or so then indulging in his imagination on extended weekends, where he absorbs the neon ghosts and soul of the city into his eerie, velours celluloid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Belgium Solanas, the mesmerizing alter ego that often has cabaret audiences ( myself included ) in tears – there is often something overwhelmingly dreamlike and touching in the distilled cinematic melancholy of the performances :  Michael  appeared in Duncan and Yukiro Dravarious’s hilarious comedy horror film Girl Goned from two years ago and is going to edit their new opus, ‘Spoiled Identity’, the first scene of which we filmed in Golden Week ; analytical, sincere and unflinching – his is a towering, formidable presence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Space Witches, an art performance event held in the bowels of deepest Shinjuku, Belgium came on stage, an hour or so after midnight, like an alien air hostess meets Judy Garland meets Sean Young replicant from Bladerunner, holding a copy of Bowie’s Heroes, to a medley of songs glitch-edited over Laurie heartbreaking Anderson’s O Superman, a spellbinding staging that culminated in a spontaneous hugging of my friend in the audience,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Laurie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A male and female pro-wrestling couple, jostling  in the throng of the most packed together electric honeycombs of Shinjuku had earlier spotted D and I  ( and smelled me) in Giorgio Red; the girl had apparently said to her boyfriend ‘Follow That Hair!  : they then jumped in the cab with us, and the man was soon in emotional floods of tears at the end of Solanas’ performance, which in its lack of tack and its deadly, heart rending earnestness left a black hole of emptiness and longing in the pit of your heart ( in a good way ).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An alien being emitting much needed empathy for this world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was standing next to Laurie when they embraced, and could smell commingled sweat (from all our dancing ), and traces of Van Cleef & Arpels’ Gem coming off from the silver dress, an elegant, spiced and long discontinued floriental from the late 80’s I had given Michael in lieu of a flacon of vintage YSL Opium parfum, which for some reason I had always thought he should wear on stage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opium, an almost mythical monolith of a perfume, stills smells sexy, and so FAMILIAR – almost too much so –  as though it were imprinted in our collective DNA, but inevitably the current formula is vastly thinner and less complicated than the original distilled tiger cordial of resins, spices, vanilla, flowers, mandarin oranges, and seemingly a million other ingredients doused in balsams and patchouli that for me is the very essence of late 70’s and early 80’s glamour. Scoring a sealed bottle of the extrait recently, I decided to send it to Michael. He won’t be able to wear it in the classroom ( where he usually is to be found in Gorilla Perfume’s Breath Of God), but as Belgium, I am excited to sense that opiate of Studio 54 excess drifting from the stage…….  perfume, in this context, can consolidate, re or de-emphasize an art piece, or simply take you to an added dimension.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off stage, as guests and performers chatted and drank together in the interval before the next act ( a hypnotic, bald, female Buddhist stripper covered from head to toe in exquisite calligraphy), Michael took my hand and said we had to go and take some photos up on the streets outside. Handing me his camera, I snapped away outside ramen bars and coin lockers, and felt, for a few minutes, that we had actually gone back in time,  almost as though we were Jerry Hall and Helmut Newton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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, like ripping through the fabric of time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 'Orientals', Antidotes to the banality of modern times, cinema + perfume, JAPAN PHOTOGRAPHY, LUXURIANCE, PERFUME AND PERFORMANCE, Spice

R E P L I C A N T S

 

 

 

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“So swollen with purpose, so titanically self-conscious in its myth making, that at times it nearly paralyzes itself with solemnity”, 

 

 

 

opines critic Ty Burr, for the Boston Times, definitely in the minority for his ambivalent review of Denis Villeneuve’s newest film Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction classic Blade Runner, currently doing the multiplex rounds and the object of infatuated critical response.

 

 

 

 

His summary of the film encapsulated my own feelings completely though.

 

 

 

 

We emerged from the cinema on Saturday night so delighted to be back in the cold fresh air, to be back in real life, after three hours of crushing, reverential seriousness and spectacular special effects and artful production design and the reverberating oppression of the synthesized score, finally beginning to to feel as if we could breathe again, packed under the weight of the portentous seriousness and the grand themes of humans and technology and artificial intelligence and whether virtually real creatures can fall in love. A future world, a dystopia that was so treeless and depressing I could hardly bear to watch it. The plight of the ‘replicants’ – the humanoid creatures at the heart of the film who live and respire like us but are man-made and thus disposable. Slaves.

 

 

 

 

Potentially absorbing subjects, yes, and I did love the original, and also rather like director Denis Villeneuve (whose Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal was a mesmerizingly intense and dark crime drama that really gripped me and whose recent Arrival, another sci-fi starring Amy Adams as a linguist trying to make contact with extra-terrestrials was also rather interesting, and quite beautiful to look at). I like his aesthetic, so there was no way I was not going to see his take on Blade Runner 2049 this weekend and drag Duncan alongside with me.

 

 

 

Prior to seeing the film, we had a delightful Japanese meal at one of our favorite izakaya near the cinema in Tsujido – red lanterns and wooden tables, the only foreigners in there, packed, tucked in at the counter table near where the cooks were wreathed in steam and smoke and shouting enthusiastically in tandem with the waiters as the orders came in; delicious yakitori and tofu and our first winter nabe hotpot of the season that felt like very necessary soul food – we ate it in silence, immersed in the ambience of the restaurant, and then moved on contentedly to the cinema, looking forward to new evocations of Shinjuku and giant neon screens familiar from the city itself and the original classic.

 

 

 

I was bored to death though. It felt like molasses. Like a vacuum. I love slow and beautiful films, but this felt almost interminable. Like a gradual asphyxiation. Choking in black.  I even asked D if we should leave the cinema half way through (could we make it to the very end?), but we decided to stay and brave it out. Surrender to it as it washed over you and crushed you. Slumped in our seats, in the dark. A slow, viscous black of cinematic texture that certainly impressed with its ‘design’ and its almost tactile heaviness and peculiarly realistic feel, but which also seemed to have no heart, nor tension, nor propulsion nor real dramatic interest but which was drowning instead under the weight of its sheer duty to not betray the original film and yet also to showcase the originality of the director’s successor in a morass of such humorless ‘philosophical’ gravity that it felt, almost, more like an ordeal of ‘quality’ and sturdily scientific ‘good taste’ than an evening of pleasure or entertainment.  We came out numb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And yet yesterday, and even today, I find the film lingering still in my consciousness. It is in me. And despite what I have written here, and quite perversely, I almost really want to go back and see it again ( I very nearly just abandoned this post to rush back to the cinema to try it in 3D).  Perhaps it was the level of consternation of so many of my friends who really loved it and were outraged by my initial reaction to it that makes me want to reassess it. Perhaps it touches me in some way I don’t entirely understand. Perhaps it went under the skin.

 

 

 

 

Do I identify with the main protagonist, K, played by Ryan Gosling,  in some way? A replicant human who is employed by the corporation that created him, a vital part of the organization and yet outside of it? It might be an overreach to say so. And yet the experience of being a permanent, eternal etranger here in Japan, while having its fair few privileges and attractions and beautiful dreamness (I don’t think either of us has remotely tired of those yet and who knows if we will ever leave) can still be very alienating, disturbing, fascinating – like K staring at his hands and yearning for humanity, myself aware of my otherness and whiteness in a way that is perturbingly, but importantly, quite different from the familiarly European or American or any other Caucasian majority nation standard white gaze out on to the other – the darker skinned, the ‘alien’. Here, obviously, it is in reverse. Privileged, certainly, but still a complicated lodestone of Japanese complexes of superiority and inferiority, interiorized. A useful lesson, but still very distancing. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I have long been the only foreigner working at my company, or at least the only one that has a permanent position. Teachers from all over the world are contracted to teach English conversation classes for the elementary school sixth graders, a couple of times a week, just short, entertaining lessons at the various schools in Kanagawa Prefecture, but I never meet them. I am alone in my position of almost total independence and autonomy. Trusted to do the job in my own way. Uninterfered with.  It has been me, and only me, for seventeen years – a strange predicament whose origins I don’t understand entirely (why put yourself in a position where you are culturally, to some extent, permanently estranged? )

 

 

 

 

And yes, it has sometimes been difficult psychologically for me, as any job is, even (especially?) with people of your own nationality – don’t tell me you have never had work frictions – but it has also been endlessly fascinating: I am a natural voyeur and an analyst, and for me it has been like living as a borrowed infiltrator, a person who has absorbed what he has seen and understood a totally different culture intuitively, even when it is sometimes impossible to put into words. The madness of it. The beauty of it. The elegance. The obedience and sadomasochism. The physicality (when every person you interact with is Japanese, and those features become absolutely the norm of your eye), your own invisibility yet constant standing out;  its almost willing erosion of your heart and soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In September suddenly there were two of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a sea of hundreds of Japanese people: another permanent White Teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And it has been strange. Awkward; something to adapt to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cynic, expatriate, anyone who knows anything about foreigners from overseas who have come to Japan (and often never leave), will assume, quite rightly perhaps, that my ‘uniqueness’ as the only white ‘charisma man’, the term given to pathetic people whose status and self-worth is built upon their identity as an ‘unusual’ foreigner, was unduly threatened by the invasion of this newcomer: everyone knows – it is a standing joke here – how unnerved foreigners (or ‘gaijin‘, the slightly pejorative term used for and ironically by the non-Japanese here) are by the presence of other gaijin: you don’t know where to look, whether to smile and nod in acknowledgement, or to look in the other direction, which is what almost everybody does, your bubble of insularity and nothingness and sheer emancipation in some ways from your former self temporarily burst by your unwanted reflection. It is almost a shock, sometimes, to see someone else who is in such a tiny minority of the population and has also made the strange decision to immerse themselves deeply into a society that doesn’t really want them but which, secretly, is equally very struck, bemused, and intrigued by their difference, their alienness –  a discomfiting mirror. A reminder. A threat to your serenity. As in the film, where replicants are trained to kill one another to take out old models, but where other replicants are forming resistance armies, there is a dis-ease sometimes with your ‘own kind’, as if you wanted never to be remembered to yourself: to just blend, or even disappear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other man, who I shall call Michel, is from France. Intelligent, tall, dignified –  perhaps troubled –  and about ten years younger than me, he has been employed in the company since March as an English teacher who teaches English in Japanese. Unlike myself, employed as a native speaker and communicating with all English teachers in English but all other staff in Japanese, treated as a valued member of the school I think but definitely not quite part of it – because of his superior Japanese ability as well as his fluent English, Michel works as a Japanese member of staff, and is treated as such. He is ‘one of the teachers’. He has been absorbed. Partly. He is a novelty. A new kind of hybrid (the central conceit of Blade Runner 2049 is the possible existence of the child of human/replicant parents, or even fully replicant, a potentially lethal revelation – as the artificial humans were assumed to be sterile – that might endanger the stability of the strict replicant/human divide, imbuing the former with humanity, and more importantly, a soul.)

 

 

 

 

And while not subjected to the full, exhausting schedule of the other teachers, which only the Japanese teachers would put upon themselves, he attends the meetings, and team teaches with them, and, essentially, acts like them, behaves as a Japanese, which is not something I have ever done because I am incapable of it and not only because of my stubborn linguistic handicap – it goes more inwards, and it would feel like some kind of treason or terrible capitulation. It is instinctive. I just can’t. I have never wanted to. I have always refused to. For whatever reason, it would be like letting go of my inner core, a freakish pantomime. To my eyes,  to be bowing and scraping and subverting yourself, if you are not Japanese, just looks too unnatural somehow- it looks like theatre, it looks buffoon. It makes me cringe. I would also love to know what my Japanese colleagues secretly, really think too.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I met a lovely English girl for the first time recently, Polly – long term resident, writer, and sensitized to this environment as phobically as I am; nervous, too sentient, like me, a person who seems to feel the same in her love/hate relationship to it all though she is tipping over more to the latter side, now,  and is soon going to leave and ‘go back’ (where ‘a different set of internal organs will be affected’, she memorably told me…)

 

 

 

 

 

Polly is now a freelance Japanese/English translator here and thus has no problem communicating, but she still, also, like me, can’t quite bear the sight of a foreigner putting himself through the motions, of aping and mimicking the gestures and body language and honorific language when he knows that he will never really be thought of as part of it all…….to both our sets of trained and languishing eyes it is embarrassing, undignified, almost,  slipping willingly into an alien skin, an unnatural carapace like a sealed deep sea diver trapped within airtight glass of taut atmospheric pressure, gesticulating pointlessly and mouthing like a dumdum. Clownish. Like the lumbering but always good-intentioned Frenchman in Shusaku Endo’s ‘Wonderful Fool’.

 

 

 

 

 

Not that Michel is anything but charming and thoughtful and sensitive and very capable. I like him. I would like to get to know him better. And we have had some quite interesting, if occasionally fraught, conversations about various issues, where we realized how different our politics are; slightly guarded exchanges, the eyes flickering occasionally with some kind of mutual suspicion, or at least an uncomfortable wariness while we attempt to find some common ground (he had gone six months being ‘the only one’ while I was in hospital and at home so it must have been something of a shock, for him as it was for me, to adapt to the other’s presence). We both want to keep our own space. We both admit that it feels weird speaking too loudly in English (or in French, for extra confidentiality) in the teacher’s room, like an impingement on the Japanese harmony of the space. That we must know our rightful place. An invasion of the bodysnatchers.

 

 

 

 

 

There is some kind of hyperconsciousness. As you will see from reading this. This comes not from me, though, at least I don’t think so. It is possible that I am paranoid, but essentially I think I am just processing and reacting to what is there. Japan is neurotic and hypersensitive to everything foreign and I am just responding to it.  It goes down deep into the insular DNA, the land that was sealed off from the rest of humanity for century after century. The island.  The mythical Nippon. You can’t escape it, and it is part of the pleasure of living here, in a contrarian kind of way. You make of it what you will. You live the Japanese life that you want to. Or that you are able to. It is a choice. But judging from our exchanges so far, it is obvious that he is by far the Japanophile – with plenty of reservations and criticisms of the culture, still – but he does really seem to love it here, and seems to have left France far behind, for reasons he has not gone into and which I have not probed. Here he is more comfortable, despite his very French fundamental nihilism and what I feel is some kind of suppressed despair, and his socially gregarious, polite and generally genuinely likable self.  In that way, I feel we are the opposite. I like to imagine that I am happy within myself, deep down, but that it is society and the falsity of communication and the oppression of stupid, arbitrary rules imposed on us from without that get me down. The ‘outside world’. And in escaping both the strictures of my culture of birth but also rejecting most of the one that I have adopted, I have found a strange form of spiritual freedom. A place where I can ‘be’. As has he. But unlike me, Michel is great at the Japanese small talk, and the friendly banter – something I have much more difficulty with – I go straight for the crux – and is essentially far, far more pleasant, nicer than I ever could be, more ingratiating, even.  I find it impressive. But for me when I am observing, quietly from my corner (we only encounter each other in various schools intermittently) it also feels like a weird, self-conscious replication of something. It feels like an act. Or is it just jealousy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

The intense, almost unnerving feeling of being quasi- repelled within my own skin (an interesting sensation – this must be what happens to all racial minorities when overexposed to the majority ethnicity of the country they live in) came one evening in early October when the two of us were alone in the teachers’ room, all Japanese teachers having gone to their lessons. Preparing lessons, typing at our computers, and occasionally talking. We were sitting at our desks, visible to the students from the outside. And I noticed that two of them, young girls, who had come to ask their teachers a question, were looking in from the corridor with slightly odd looks on their faces, dismay, even, or at the very least discomfiture, and I immediately felt some form of perturbance ; an awareness of my skin, that the teacher’s room had been colonized by Europeans.  I really felt that I could feel the students’ slight discomfort and even the school secretary’s: that we had almost taken over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I felt, in fact for a moment, almost like an android; uncanny.

 

 

 

 

 

Acrylic.

 

 

 

 

 

White.

 

 

 

 

Clammy.

 

 

 

 

Waxen. 

 

 

 

 

Piggish. Keen:  flushed with Europeanness.

 

 

 

 

An amphibious, capillaried skin pallor; drained yet somewhat pinkish with our Caucasian, more prominent noses ( we don’t look entirely dissimilar, M and I; vaguely Napoleonic); our melatonin depleted irises – his blue; mine green.

 

 

 

 

Cold beacons of light in a more usual, familiar sea of penetrating, brown, nearly black,   indigenous eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big-limbed, ungainly, straw-haired goons seeking oblivion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under autobiography, cinema + perfume, Organic

PERFUME, CAROL

 

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Perfume features prominently in Carol, Todd Haynes’ love story involving two women in fifties America ( played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara : both up for Oscars for their performances in this film next week. )

 

I saw it yesterday with a Japanese friend of mine in Ginza. And while I found my eyes rolling slightly as soon as the ‘luscious score’ by Carter Burwell began ( so typical of these films as a signifier of  Quality Emotion : the piano; the strings, the chords ripped off shamelessy from Philip Glass’s work in The Hours ) and was initially wary of Ms Blanchett’s arch, self conscious presence ( fur-coated; glamorous : an iguana in lipstick ),  I soon found myself gradually slipping into the deep bathos of the story ; the intuitive brilliance of the cinematography; both of which drew us in completely and, eventually, had us sobbing silently in our red velvet seats.

 

But while Carol’s perfume is both commented on and even used in a moment of closeness as the women share some scent together, it is overwhelmed, olfactorily (for me at least) by  the scent of their cigarettes: what perfume could withstand it ? ( how on earth could people have stood the smell back in those days? Those clothes; so exquisite, so soignee and fitted and draped must have just smelled constantly rank. Everyone smokes, obsessively, in the film, to the extent that you wonder how Cate Blanchett’s perfume – Chanel, incidentally, one presumes Five, – could ever have risen above).

 

 

In any case, I was wearing enough perfume myself to compensate. Nahema parfum on my skin ( behind my ears and on my neck ), and Shalimar vintage extrait drenched on my cashmere scarf ( perfume on cashmere, wow- I am discovering new possibilities with scent in this regard- clouds: layers: powder: texture – more nuzzling and soft animal, long lasting, sensual ), but this was soon irrelevant or at least a mere redolent backdrop.  Because despite a certain Academy awardish typicality ( everything so perfect: a perfectionist’s lack of spontaneity), the sheer visual artistry I was seeing up there on the screen, and the depth of atmosphere ultimately created as the two elope in the snow at Christmastime  – beautiful, even visionary – blurred my customary syntaesthesic reaction to the cinematic screen and had me forgetting my nose for once, immersing me in pure emotion.

 

 

 

I think it was the tension that got me: the REPRESSION. The secrecy, fear; the needless shame; guilt. All of which resonates deeply within me. So sad that it had to be that way and still does for so many: Therese and Carol’s instinctive, and natural impulses; the sweetness and purity of their love, distorted and perverted by crushing, and conventional, ‘morality’.

 

 

As in Ang Lee’s masterful ‘Lust, Caution’, one of my favourite ever films ( set in 1940’s Shanghai, a story of the affair between a female spy and an occupying Japanese army forces Chinese male collaborator) there is an extremely long build up in this film of emotional and erotic tension, building up inexorably until the final moment of the lovers’ physical and psychical release: a restraint which is frustrating ( some might find the screenplay slow) but which accumulatively, as the film progresses and the thwarting drama of the characters’lives play out, communicates real, and quite eviscerating, frustration.

 

 

When this happens, it is very moving. Tender, and for the characters, overwhelming. As it was, also, for us. I realized that as I left the cinema I had been quite absorbed, submerged. 

 

 

 

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Filed under cinema + perfume, Flowers

SEX + ODORLESSNESS : : DAVID FINCHER’S ‘GONE GIRL’ (2014)

 

 

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I went to see Gone Girl yesterday at the local multiplex. Although by no means one of my favourite cinematic auteurs – he is too technical, precise, for me, almost surgically so, too male: his films like darkly-lit, immaculately oiled machines ( I like things more oneiric and primal, less rational, more lurid), at the same time I do appreciate director David Fincher’s great skill in producing high quality mainstream entertainment that can keep you gripped and pinned to your seat in grim, dystopian, and atmospheric, intricately crafted mood pieces such as Seven, Zodiac, The Social Network, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

 

 

Though it took a while for me to get drawn in this time, especially as a lot of the cinematography was literally too dark on the screen to see what was going on, as it gradually began to span out and release its gelid tentacles, ultimately, I think Gone Girl is the film I have enjoyed most of Fincher’s since Seven (1995), a film I found so horrifically suspenseful at the time, as Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman waited tensely in the desert for Kevin Spacey’s final act of maniacal cruelty, that I thought I was going to have a heart attack in my cinema seat. The suspense was unbearable, and I still remember my friends and I blinking out into the London daylight freaked out and nerve-stripped, laughing at our panicked, collective reaction. Only a born film director can achieve such an effect, and Gone Girl had me again leaving the cinema feeling consummated yet repelled: a coil of unease in my heart and stomach and a sense of something – the unflinching dissection of a marriage and the cruel dictates of heterosexuality; images of blood and horror retained in the retina, but most of all, at the abstract, artistic level, a convincing gut sensation, of a compelling, if archetypal, portrayal of female jealousy and revenge. This is Medea and Lady Macbeth in a crisp, Calvin Klein blouse; ferociously cool and calculating, yet, in her bruised and fiercely depilated guise, divorced from her corporal, and smelling, primal self.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In essence, if you haven’t already seen it (most people seem to have done: it is Fincher’s biggest commercial hit so far), I will try not to spoil the twists and turns of what happens in this film, but the plot essentially concerns the decimated relationship of married couple Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his very W.A.S.P-ish trophy wife, Amy, (played quite brilliantly by British actress Rosalind Pike): a cool, elegant, almost Hitchcockian blonde who goes missing the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary and is presumed murdered (by her own husband). The rest of the film deals with the twists and turns of this setup, revelling in mystery and the grimly unexpected, and though many will find the film schlocky and unrealistic, melodramatic, offensive even, in its entrenched gender and thriller clichés, I gradually found myself enjoying the film immensely. For me, it was quite fascinating on a number of levels, both visually and aesthetically, but also in its sharp incisions: its knife-sharp depiction of what is expected of marriage in some quarters, and the effect that has on the individual: the potentially corrosive, even murderous, consequences of having to act the part.

 

 

 

 

This is a film of surfaces. Clean, cold, antiseptic surfaces. Of odourlessness, and of marriage as ‘performance’, an institution that must be perfect, unattainable, in that wealthy, upper middle class U.S manner: the gleaming artifice of pearl-toothed smiles and societal assumptions gleaned mindlessly from TV and the media, which, in the union we witness on screen at least, is quickly reduced, from a readily sanctioned ‘bliss’, initially, to a slowly corruptive poison as the cracks in the porcelain of scrubbed perfection soon become evident.

 

 

 

I write the word ‘bliss’ in quotation marks because it seems to me that even the apparent giddy joyfulness that Nick and Amy seem to experience at the onset of their relationship, quipping and jesting ironically in the way that people always do on American television, that acidic, ‘meta’ self-awareness, as if heartfelt, unselfconscious, dialogue were an impossibility, feels immediately forced and in the firm grip of their preimagined ideals of what ‘love’, ‘sex’, and ultimately, ‘marriage’, are. It is patently love at first sight, though, as they flirt at a party of mutual acquaintances, and hereafter we find them, out in the sugar snow, sealing their immaculate conception with a kiss, the pinnacle of romance already reached before they have even begun. And, thus, nuptials, and the moving in to their ‘beautiful home’ in Missouri, when Nick’s mother becomes sick, and the New York literary life is no longer a possibility because of the economic recession. We see that money is the devil that undoes the bond, also ‘elevating’ the human animal beyond its more instinctual desires: see Amy in her former (stalker) boyfriend’s lavish, hi-tech, lakeside house, again, so purely odourless, artificial, airless, yet so fully equipped: all the machinery, and gadgets you could ever want, automated; all the wrapped cellophaned designer fashion and makeup she could want, to ‘restore’ Amy to the doll that Desi ultimately wants to see her as. Here we enter a veritable vortex of fakery: motives concealed, Nick/Ben bristling with righteous hatred, yet still maintaining his ‘hot’, sincere, everyman quality (he definitely has a smell, even if it is just an honest smell of booze, man sweat and unwashed hair), as he makes a TV appearance with the most insincere and phony chat show sensationalist.

 

Lies, even at the external, real world level: Rosalind Pike, an English woman playing a Manhattan faking a southern accent; Neil Patrick Harris, gay playing straight in this velvet-roped prison, where the only release is a truly shocking scene involving a slit throat, false rape, and a Carrie-like return back to ‘reality’. Only blood-caked, and (very briefly) animal-like, does Amy attain any semblance of flesh and blood, odorous human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The homecoming. That home. Mine, and Duncan’s, idea of hell. That so -called ‘perfect home’, a ‘home’ (even that word has become an enforced viper’s nest of commercial and real estate directives), in fact, to my personal aesthetic in any case, so ugly; fixed and unmoulded; inorganic, and unappealing (many/ most viewers will of course not think so, they will be coveting it).

 

 

Unstained (except, on the day of the anniversary, with blood). Sanitary. Stripped of any life or colour, of anything organic, of smell. Vast and spacious, with its spiralling staircase, ‘storage space’; white, grey, pristine. Painted and dead with sealants. Polyurethane.

 

 

 

And Amy. While Nick has a slightly unripe aspect (as one reviewer puts it, Ben Affleck perfectly nails the role of the ‘golden boy gone to seed’), the cold and standoffish Amy, beautiful and magnetizing to behold yet curiously sexless, looks as if her skin and body have been bleached and completely deodorized (she even mentions the ‘brutal Brazilian waxes’ that have been supposedly been forced on her); a well heeled and educated, Upper West Side mannequin transmuted reluctantly to the south and preserved in a wax-like state of ‘feminine’ untouchability, of modern, all performing wifeliness.

 

 

 

Predictably, this state of grace is not to last, and although things are told in time warping flashback, with unreliable narrators and carefully misguiding clues, once financial woes take hold, the saccharine, impeccable nature of the couple’s marriage begins to quickly unravel at the seams, both partners finding that they have only the reality of their true natures (though at all times concealed) to fall back on. The rogueish country boy becomes a game-playing, but potentially violent, slob; the wife a directionless, depilated ice queen, distant and shrewish, unavailable, lost, the husband lazily committing adultery two years into their relationship with a needy, if voluptuous, university student he has coaxed into the bar bought for him with his wife’s savings.

 

 

At least his girlfriend looks real, scented: ripe with longing. Outward-looking; real. Amy, on the other hand, lost, seems to crystallize a thousand misogynist clichés of the clammed up ice-bitch, apoplectic, yet mute. Like Glenn Close before her in Fatal Attraction, she is a woman, a cipher, a body, to be used and tossed aside, invoking the hatred of the heterosexual male viewer fearing the ensnaring trap of the spider ( her snow white beauty notwithstanding): arousing anger in many female viewers, probably, also, for the valid reason that the character is possibly nothing but a sexist rehashing of the ‘hell hath no fury like a scorned woman’ trope. This aside, for me, a visual and atmosphere-driven viewer, the entire affair, from the cinematic perspective, was thrilling and perturbing, but also deeply alienating. Locked in their projected roles, the characters seem trapped in hell: of shiny, smiling superficiality, all in the name of procreation, money, and the keeping up of appearances. What for?

 

 

 

The coiling future foetus scars the mind tissue with its inevitability, the characters now back, inexorably, in their taupe, scent-free corridors, ready to face ‘the world’ and bring up a baby, even as they find themselves literally smashing each others’ heads against the walls – a total lack of true bodily and fluid connection once the stagey, self-aware and choreographed ‘lovemaking’ of their initial sexual attraction has subsided. Amy couldn’t possibly be less scented; less turned inward towards her own self in blanched out fury than she is; livid; frozen; and it is this pale, sickened, and etiolated self, that, despite its outward appearance of socially accepted attractiveness and ‘beauty’, we can’t help but find so repulsive. She needs to come alive again from within – become warm again in her own skin. She needs skinship, to get beyond herself and her enamelled surfaces with smell. Consequently, If ever there were a character in need of a good, soul-anchoring, body-releasing perfume to bring her back to the real surface and true connections with other human beings, to reach out wordlessly and communicate, it is she: this Amy, this odourless, self-obliterating ‘Gone Girl’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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