My Year Of Flops Case File #104 Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer
More My Year Of Flops
Well my friends, it appears that we have finally reached the end. Or have we? We have come to the super-sized 104th entry in a 104-part series on cinematic failure. So now is the perfect time to hop into the Wayback Machine, travel back to the very beginning, and explore the origins of My Year Of Flops.
In early 2007, I submitted a book proposal for a pop culture memoir to my incomparable agent. As anyone who has been through the process can vouch, waiting to hear back from publishers is a gut-wrenching, ulcer-inducing process made even more unbearably anxiety-provoking if the book you're pitching is a memoir. It's one thing to have the powers that be reject your mystery novel about a film critic who writes mean things about Hilary Duff by day and solves crimes with the help of his trusty feline sidekick Mr. Whiskers by night. (That, incidentally, will be my next book. Don't all start bidding at once, publishing-world motherfuckers!) But when publishers reject a memoir, they're not just rejecting your writing or your characters; they're more or less rejecting the sum of your being. So the rejection is much more intense. Like, curl-up-in-a-fetal-ball-with-a-bottle-of-whiskey-while-moaning-softly intense.
Being an inveterate pessimist, the question wasn't what I should do if my book proposal didn't sell but rather what I would do when it didn't sell. Knowing all too well my black moods and tendency towards gut-wrenching despair, I wanted to have a big, time-and-labor-intensive project to throw myself into other than suicidal depression and drinking myself into an early grave.
My first, quickly discarded idea was to spend a year watching and writing about the Criterion Collection in order: three hundred and sixty five Criterion releases in three hundred and sixty five days. Oh, the zingers I had planned for Tokyo Olympiad! You'd never be able to look at Abebe Bikila or Ahamed Isa without pissing yourself with laughter once I was done with my hilarious takedown of the film.
This idea was rapidly abandoned once two fatal flaws became apparent: in its passionate embrace of the product of a single company, it bordered on advertorial and writing about 365 ambitious, challenging films in a one-year-span seemed prohibitively difficult. My next idea was "My Year Of Oscars." That one is fairly self-explanatory; I'd watch 365 Oscar winners in 365 magically middlebrow days. Several seconds later, I realized that I didn't really like Oscar movies. In high school, I used to win the Oscar pool every year and with it a sweet, sweet ten-dollar gift coin to Coconuts by employing a strategy as simple as it was cynical: I picked the films I had the most contempt for, then watched them strut their way to Oscar glory (by that logic, look for Juno to win big this year).
The embryonic origins of My Year Of Flops began in the screening room during a showing of Elizabethtown. It was an awful, punishingly precious movie so overwhelmingly earnest, sincere, and big-hearted that beating up on it is like dropkicking a puppy. Yet I could not stop thinking about it. It took up valuable real estate inside my cerebellum and settled in for the long haul. When I tried to remember, say, my first kiss or that time in little league when I hit a home run, I was horrified to learn that those memories had been replaced by the scene in Elizabethtown where Susan Sarandon tap-dances at a wake or the road-trip/mix-tape montage that closes the film. Elizabethtown was a bad, profoundly flawed film that got under my skin in ways infinitely superior films didn't.
The next seminal moment in My Year Of Flops' long, strange, boring evolution came when I watched Envy on DVD. I expected the worst. This was, after all, a barely released, late-period Ben Stiller comedy with a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a gimmicky plot centered on a feces-destroying project called "Vapoorize." So I was shocked to find myself enjoying it. It wasn't a lost masterpiece by any means, but there was a spark of genius to Christopher Walken's performance as a deranged hobo and it was fascinating watching Ben Stiller take his increasingly hacky persona into dark, unlikable places. I found myself thinking that I could mount a fairly elaborate defense of Envy, but where would I do so? It was an argument without an outlet.
I had similarly low expectations for Idiocracy, a not-screened-for-critics Mike Judge sci-fi comedy Fox was dumping into a smattering of theaters before its DVD burial. But once the lights went down I found myself thinking first "Hey, this isn't that bad", then "Hey, this is actually pretty great." By the halfway mark, I felt like I was watching one of the definitive satires of my generation. Fox's "marketing" of Idiocracy was less a publicity blitz than an indirect apology. It was a stunning reversal of the usual dynamic, a rare instance where a studio seemingly goes out of its way to make a movie seem much, much worse than it actually is.
To be a professional film critic is to have an intimate and profound sense of your own powerlessness. Movies you champion die unmourned deaths in empty theaters while the Alvin & The Chipmunks of the world gallop their way past the $300 million mark at the box-office. But every once in a little while you get to make at least a tiny bit of a difference, usually with a scruffy, kicked-around little underdog that needs every bit of help it can get.
Idiocracy is such a film. Like Envy, it was a film its studio and marketing department had given up on months before it was apathetically leaked to theaters. Unlike Envy, Idiocracy rose from the cheap pine casket Fox had fashioned for it to become an instant cult classic. Fox treated it like the most abject and hopeless of failures, but appreciative audiences deemed it a Secret Success. I'd like to think my tireless (and perhaps tiresome) championing of the film played at least a miniscule role in making it a cult favorite.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when I watched Tom Twyker's Perfume: Story Of A Murderer. Like Elizabethtown, it was a movie that alternately bored and angered me. Yet I could not stop thinking about it. I wrote a blog entry about it that got a strong enough response to make me think I was onto something. Then it hit me: I should spend a year writing about flops! In the end, my sympathies lie not with art-house masterpieces or middle-of-the-road Oscar triumphs but with losers, flops, failures, fiascoes, and fuck-ups. I was going to stand up for the underdog, to fearlessly champion films that got a raw deal but deserved so much more. I was going to ferret out movies like Envy or Idiocracy and herald their overlooked virtues from my electronic bully pulpit. My editor Keith, incidentally, talked me out of the 365-films-in-365-days idea, for which I am eternally grateful.
Around this time, something unexpected happened: my book was sold to Scribner. Oh joyous day! I signed my contract on February 1st and was given 12 months to turn in my book. That essentially meant that the annum of My Year Of Flops was also the year I wrote my memoir. I consequently like to think of My Year Of Flops and my memoir as being Siamese twins conceived and nurtured in the same tainted womb. The big difference is that in my memoir, I'm the failure being discussed. Given the spiraling scope of My Year Of Flops, that meant I had to write two voluminous, ambitious books' worth of material in a 12-month span while keeping up with my ever-expanding responsibilities as A.V Club Head Writer. At the risk of sounding hopelessly melodramatic, I found the whole experience a little bit taxing.
What's that? Last year you wrote four books and served as the Head Writer for four prominent entertainment website/newspapers? Well I suppose you're made of sterner stuff than me, theoretical person who exists only in my head. What's that? Last year you wrote seven books, fired off 140 book reviews, served on the faculty of Princeton, and played goalie for the Edmonton Oilers? I'm sorry, Joyce Carol Oates, but you don't count, since you obviously aren't a human being at all but rather a literature-producing android. Seriously. No mere mortal can write that many books, unless they farm much of the work out to third-world literary sweatshops. And to be honest with you, Mrs. Oates, I thought your last book, The Banal Art: Grocery Lists 1973-1987 was a little on the thin side.
Yet when I think back on the past year the dominant emotion I recall is something approaching pure joy. For I have an unfair advantage over many of my fellow scribes: I love what I do. Hopefully that comes through in my writing. Not a day goes by that I don't thank my lucky stars to be privileged enough to make a living through the pad and pen instead of being locked down to seven to ten. So I viewed working on my memoir, My Year of Flops, and my A.V Club duties less as a burden than as a gift from the writing gods. I was fortunate enough to be able to work on two projects I cared deeply about and filled me with pride. My Year Of Flops has always meant a lot to me. I'm grateful that it seems to have meant something to you guys as well.
I'll never forget the all-over tingle of excitement and anticipation I used to experience waiting for fresh copies of The Onion to arrive in my college cafeteria before I began my career here at The A.V. Club. I can only hope that My Year Of Flops inspired some tiny little fraction of that same excitement among its loyal readership. To everyone who's read or commented on My Year of Flops or pimped it on their blog, I'd like to offer my very sincere thanks. You're all collectively the man now, dawg.
I was particularly surprised by the warm reception My Year Of Flops has received since it's personality-driven and ex-girlfriends, pastors, and various parole officers have all assured me that my personality is what Ali G might call "a bit crap," though the phrase "worse than Hitler" gets thrown around with disconcerting regularity as well. Alas, that parole officer mysteriously didn't have much to say 'bout any personality failings I might have that night I showed up outside his bedroom window at three in the morning with an electric chainsaw and miles of duct tape. No, then everything was "Mr. Rabin" this and "Please don't hurt my family" that. Fucking hypocrite.
Writing a My Year Of Flops entry still scares the shit out of me a little bit. I think that's as good a reason as any to continue writing them. When the fear disappears entirely, so does the passion and the inspiration.
Since I've written about Elizabethtown andEnvy in this series and Idiocracy has too much of a cult following to qualify as a flop (how many other barely-released films have their own energy drink?), I'd like to devote the 104th entry in My Year Of Flops to Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, one of the series' primary inspirations. I know it's a perversely marginal film to go out on but, as I wrote earlier, I want to go out the way I came in: weird, obscure, self-indulgent, and obsessive. Also, I'm going out loony like O-Dog.
Everyone's a sucker for a redemptive character arc. That's why my memoir ends with me being elected President of the Universe, winning eight Nobel Prizes, and solving the Kennedy assassination with the help of my irascible feline sidekick, Mr. Whiskers. Granted, none of that shit actually happened, but hopefully readers will walk away satisfied that I'm not the same asshole I was in Chapter One.
So what's my redemptive character arc? How has My Year Of Flops changed me? I guess I've gone native. I entered into this project with a certain spirit of generosity so it's fitting that I'm ending the original incarnation of My Year Of Flops by praising something I previously condemned. Yes, all it took was immersing myself in a thrilling, weird world of failure for an entire year to finally understand the strange glory of Tom Tykwer's Perfume: A Story Of A Murdered. Time, experience, and altered expectations helped transform an archetypal Fiasco into a Secret Success. It doesn't hurt that the film echoes two of my favorite films of last year, There Will Be Blood (sociopathic anti-hero loses his humanity while pursuing his obsession at all costs) and Sweeney Todd (moody, driven protagonist leaves trail of carnage in his wake and tussles with Alan Rickman in fetid, old-timey hellhole).
My Year Of Flops entries generally take about a work day to research and write. During that time, I'm essentially in the world of whatever I'm writing about. Let me tell you: thinking about nothing but Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Dreamcatcher for an entire day does weird things to a man's mind grapes.
Today I immersed myself in the operatic universe of Perfume. Perfume hit theaters shrouded in myth. Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Milos Forman, Julian Schnabel, and Tim Burton all reportedly flirted with adapting Patrick Suskind's novel for the big screen before aging boy wonder Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) signed on as co-writer/director. Kurt Cobain wrote a song about the film's protagonist ("Scentless Apprentice"). Suskind even co-wrote a film (Rossini) loosely inspired by the mad quest to buy the rights for Perfume.
It took one of the biggest budgets (a reported $65 million dollars) in European film history to realize the breathtaking scope and ambition of Suskind's novel. The filmmakers had to move heaven and earth to make a perversely non-commercial film centered around a mono-syllabic mass murderer obsessed with creating the world's greatest perfume. $65 million is an awful lot of money to spend on a film about a kill-crazy smell junkie played by a complete unknown (Ben Whishaw).
The very first image of Whishaw is of a reptilian figure in near total darkness. All we can see is the predatory gleam in his eyes and his nose conspicuously bathed in light. In this instance, at least, it's the nostrils that are the window to the soul, not the eyes. An agitated lynch mob lustily cheers every loving detail of Whishaw's scheduled execution. There bloodlust must be satiated.
We then flash back to the sub-Dickensian misery of Whishaw's birth. According to John Hurt's narration, the infant who will grow up to be Whishaw was born in "the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom" to a fishmonger who promptly throws him out with rotted fish. But the baby's will to live is strong. It amazes me, the will of instinct. He's shuttled off to an orphanage where he once again faces death at the hands of fellow orphans out to smother him in his sleep.
In Perfume, death, murder, and unspeakable cruelty are everyday occurrences. Life is nasty, brutish, and short. And that's on the good days. Death seems to follow Whishaw like a lost puppy. In one of the film's grimmest running jokes, everyone who parts ways with Whishaw immediately dies a horrible death. The ghastly killing of minor characters qualifies as nothing more than a throwaway gag.
Whishaw pinballs from an orphanage of infinite cruelty to a tannery where he's worked like a misbehaving mule and finally to the perfume shop of pompous boob Dustin Hoffman, in full-on self-parody mode. For Whishaw has a rare and unique gift; possessing no scent of his own, Whishaw has a preternaturally discerning nose. He is obsessed with creating the world's most intoxicating scent, he doesn't much care if he has to kill a couple dozen virgins in the process. After he kills his first victim, Whishaw sniffs hungrily at her like a dog; it's apparent early on that his primary sexual organ is his nose. His need to smell wonderful things makes everything else seem niggling and irrelevant.
With his gaunt face, burning eyes, simian eyebrows, and emaciated body, Whishaw looks like Anthony Perkins after a three month hunger strike, with a little Mick Jagger and Sid Vicious thrown in for good measure. Whishaw plays the lead character as a walking contradiction: a feral aesthete, a saintly demon, a murder artist, an admirer and destroyer of beautiful young women.
There's a fascinating mutability about the film's protagonist: he's anything the audience wants him to be; hero, villain, saint, sinner, messiah, anti-Christ, great artist, and a flattering mirror image of their own sensitive, soulful suffering selves. He exists in the world yet is not of the world. It's easy to see why multiple generations of filmmakers, many of them former prodigies themselves, have been attracted to a character so rarified in his gifts and so prodigious in his talent that he stands outside the sum of humanity on a plane all his own, a world where only his particular artform matters.
Whishaw's obsession with finding the perfect scent leads him to kill scores of beautiful young women before zeroing in on the ethereally beautiful daughter of Alan Rickman. Eventually Whishaw is captured and sentenced to death. But just as he is about to be executed, he unleashes his magnum opus, a scent so devastating that it reduces an agitated throng first into a group of reverent admirers ("He's an angel!" they enthuse obliviously) and then into a giant omnisexual fuckfest with some 750 extras, some of them playing nuns and priests, writhe about in perhaps the biggest orgy in film history.
It's a scene of fever-dream intensity, a hallucinatory setpiece of staggering hypnotic power. Also it's awesome. And there are boobs. As John Hurt's narrator articulates, Whishaw, the ultimate rock star in a pre-rock era, possesses "the invincible power to command the love of mankind." But his gift "could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else so to hell with it, he thought." Whishaw's singular, ephemeral gift makes him super-human. It does not, however, make him human. That is his fundamental tragedy.
So Whishaw returns to the place of his birth, doses himself with his magical elixir, and is literally torn apart by his admirers. Hurt's bemused narrator reports that after completely destroying this Messiah of The Nose, the crowd of peasants and scent-lovers "felt a virginal glow of happiness For the first time in their lives, they felt as if they had done something purely out of love."
Perfume is fundamentally concerned with the myth of the artiste, the idea that artists are infinitely more sensitive, profound, and soulful than the rest of us and consequently should not be reined in by the laws and moral conventions that govern mere mortals. Reasonable human beings, after all, are required to pay taxes, keep up with the rent, and generally abstain for abhorrent or criminal behavior. Artists, however, need only listen to their fragile muse, man. They can't be constrained by The Man's laws! They gotta be free. Yet the film is ambiguous and darkly funny enough to double as a pitch-black satire of the myth of the artiste, with Whishaw's olfactory mad man serving as a poetic proxy for every Jim Morrisonian jackass who ever thought the genius of his precious, precious art far outweighed the unbearable obnoxiousness of his being.
Perfume is perpetually tugging us in opposite directions: upwards to heaven and downward to the bowels of hell. I originally found Tykwer's attempts to illustrate what things smell like by showing what they look and sound like laughably overwrought. Tykwer has an unfortunate tendency to fall back on the lazy shorthand of an overpoweringly powerful scent smelling the way a beautiful woman's neck, shoulders, and cleavage look. He is not alone in this association. As a boy, my conception of heaven was a beautiful woman's perfumed bosom.
The second time around, however, I found Tykwer's hyper-ventilating aesthetic a perfect match for his source material. Perfume is all about an über-artist pursuing wanton sensual rapture divorced from morality. The film's look follows suit. It's a gorgeous film that oscillates between the gritty rot of Paris fish markets and the elegant lushness of high society and a world of intoxicating aromas. It's a film of ideas that traffics in decadently lush images, the kind of pitch-black fairy tale that keeps children awake at night. It's an allegory of hypnotic power that for nearly two and a half hours sustains a mood combining awe and dread.
Well, folks, it has been an honor and a privilege wasting your time twice weekly for the past year. I've thought long and hard about what I should do after the 104th entry. I've decided to keep My Year Of Flops going as a monthly feature. I've always admired people who hang it up at the top of their game, but I've become addicted to your praise and validation. I worry that if I were to put this feature to bed permanently, the black cosmic void at the core of my being where my soul should be would begin crying out "They're not laughing anymore, joke monkey! Make with the funny or you'll recede back into the anonymity from whence you came!" Like most people, I'm motivated partially by love and partially by fear. I'd like to thank everyone for making this voyage with me. You've made this a goddamned pleasure throughout. See you next month. Same bat time, same bat channel. Oh, and incidentally look for my big "My Year of Flops" essay in the feature slot tomorrow (and, for the very first time, in actual print!). True to form, I'm taking 6,500 words (including the three-thousand-word essay that goes up tomorrow) to say goodbye without actually, you know, going anywhere.
Seacrest Out!Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success