Friday, 9 April 2010

Further adventures in scent today. On my way back from lunch I passed via the shopping arcade and tried some new things on.

1) Givenchy, 'Gentleman'. Turin and Sanchez give this 2/5 and dub it 'a sad little woody leather.' They're right. It starts with a forceful patchouli topnote, before mellowing to a woodsy, leather drydown. It doesn't suit me at all: too old, too frayed, too brown.

2) Davidoff, 'Cool Water'. Very famous, this one. Five stars from the Guide, which calls it a 'cheerful, abstract, cheap, and lethally effective formula of crab apple, woody citrus, amber, and musk', adding: 'Now let women wear it for a decade or two.' On my skin, it's a kind of marine musk, and as I'm not the kind of man who wears polo shirts, it generally makes me feel slightly vulgar---not necessarily a criticism.

3) 'Paco Rabanne pour Homme'. Four stars from Turin and Sanchez. Weird citrus/woody thing with a green, honeyed animalic drydown. Smells exactly like the fur of a cat that's been cuddled by a woman wearing very expensive perfume, before going out mousing in the rain. Interesting and sophisticated in a slightly dank way.

4) Chanel, 'Allure Homme'. One star. A kind of woody amber, very like 'Cool Water' but with the volume turned right down. It has a kind of anisic, Pernod/liquorice topnote that lasts about fifteen seconds. Totally undetectable on my skin after half an hour.

Well, I wouldn't buy any of those, and interestingly I didn't make up my mind about any of them until I sat down to write this, manically sniffing my forearms all the while. Having mentioned 'cK One' yesterday, I had a sniff at the tester again in passing. Still lovely, still the fragrance equivalent of an Agnes Martin painting:



I also tried one of the companion pieces to Hermès's gorgeous 'Eau d'Orange Verte', namely, 'Eau de Gentiane Blanche.' It's honestly one of the most horrible things I've ever smelled, so bad that I didn't dare even spray it on a card: it has a horrific topnote that smells like the lurid green sap of a very poisonous plant, like hemlock or (especially) giant hogweed. Turin and Sanchez descibe this as 'a thrillingly weird topnote of raw peanut and green peppers', which gets it exactly, though 'thrilling' wouldn't exactly be the adjective I'd choose. According to them, it then calms down to 'a meek orange blossom', but I'm buggered if I'm hanging around this triffid-venom long enough to find out.

So no luck from the lunch-break's activities, really; but still, I have Jo Malone's 'Lime, Basil, and Mandarin' to look forward to.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Lovely Things



I had a merry little shopping spree yesterday, in honour of the force that through the green fuse is presently driving the flower, an' all that.

First: new hair. It's exactly the same as the old hair, but just tidied up. It took me until the age of 28 or so to finally acknowledge that I need to get my hair cut every five to six weeks, or else it looks less like hair and more like something in dire need of a vet, inexplicably perched on top of my head.

Then I went shopping for stuff to spray on myself. Friends and regular readers may know that I have become a bit of a fragrance fanatic of late, after reading Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's ravishing, life-changing Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. Never before have I come across a book which opened my eyes to the existence of a (to me) entirely new art form of dazzling sophistication, handing one the grammar and vocabulary, the understanding of topos and genre, which grants one the ability to make an informed critical decision. This is a kind of family thing for me really, as my mother---and yet again I prove dear Oscar wrong---is a perfume junkie, who owns about 130 different fragrances. Until I read Turin and Sanchez's hilarious, poetic book, almost all of them smelled exactly the same to me: a jet-engine haze of alcohol, honking flowers, and general bleugh. I have now had my nose educated, and know why this is---I just happen to hate big florals and most orientals, because I find them overpowering and aggressive. The worst of these is of course Dior's famous 'Poison', a vast, blowsy number that encapsulates the 1980s alpha female in a bottle. Wearing it, Turin and Sanchez aptly comment, is like driving a Sherman tank down the High Street. People just get out of the way, 'and if they don't, you just swivel the turret to remind them you're not kidding.'



In fact, I nipped into John Lewis today and out of curiosity decided to have a sniff of 'Poison' for the first time while I bought something else. The expertly maquillaged, slightly brassy girl on the desk duly sprayed some on a card for me and I nearly passed out on the spot. This stuff reeks. It creeps over your clothes in the same way that a petrochemical bloom spreads up an unspoilt river estuary. Slightly shellshocked, I put the tester-card in a book, put the book in my bag, and walked home, self-consciously aware all the way that my personal space was klaxoning 'TUBEROSE!!!', as though through an olfactory megaphone. And, look you, all this despite the fact that not a drop of this stuff had ever touched my skin, hair or clothes. 'Poison' is, as the phrase went, A Perfume You Know You've Been In A Lift With.

But such unstoppable floral godzillas, thank goodness, are not the end of perfumery; no indeed, not by a long way. A bad habit of mine used to be the wearing of a single fragrance until I ran out. There are two reasons why this is not a good thing. Firstly, no one smell---unless very genteel indeed, like 1974's 'Eau de Guerlain'---can possibly suit all occasions and weathers. The second is that said smell becomes indelibly associated with a period of six months to a year in one's life, and in that limbic-brain way can afterwards instantly reawaken memories of temps perdu. This tends to overwhelm me with maudlin nostalgia and a sense of the evanescent pointlessness of life in the face of relentless, devouring Time. Quite apart from such lugubrious reflections, I also made some questionable fragrance choices. At school and in my first year at university I wore 'Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme', a sensible herbal cologne which was ten years too old for me then, and which, now that I am ten years older, I disdain as too dull by half. It's the fragrance equivalent of a well-cut suit, an expensive haircut, and a job in a merchant bank. I also wore Yves Saint Laurent's 'Opium pour Homme' for a long while, an overpowering woodsmoky oriental which now makes me feel sick, as it reminds me of an especially unhappy period in my life, around 2002. But there were some good ones too: Dior's 'Dune pour Homme', a light, citrusy cologne with a lovely green note of bitter herbs, which I still wear despite the vague feeling of melancholy at gaucheries long past which it induces. I also like 'Acqua di Gio pour Homme', which is pleasant enough---it has that split-melon-in-the-rain smell of things like 'L'Eau d'Issey', mixed with a herby-lemon tang---but it's ultimately too boring for me to contemplate buying again.

So these days I hover between seven different fragrances depending on mood. Standard day-at-work issue is either 'Dune', as described above, or Hermès's lovely 'Eau d'Orange Verte', a woody, bitter-green cologne with lots of basil and lime notes in it. Both are fresh and light, but the latter is more suitable for wearing in winter as well as summer, because the orange in it allows it to take on something of the aura of a very, very tasteful Christmas decoration. Also in winter I like Tauer's gorgeous 'L'Air du Desert Marocain', which is actually a woman's perfume but which smells great on me. Full of ancient, purifying resins---benzoin, styrax, frankincense---it has a chilly, grey cedarwood basenote which somehow makes it smell warm and cold and sweet and austere at the same time, like the day and night of the North African desert which it so skillfully evokes. Related is Armani's 'Bois d'Encens', which smells exactly like High Mass: a diffuse, lemony pall of frankincense falling on the congregation like smoky stars. Unfortunately, it's both very expensive and lasts less than half an hour on my skin. But while it lasts, it's like having a personal choir following you round singing the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Another more daring favourite is Givenchy's 'Insensé', which is that rarest of things, a floral for men. I know I said earlier that I hate florals, but this is an exception: a slightly overcast, herbaceous smell with woody undertones which lingers elusively on the edge of the senses. I'm not at all sure it suits me, but I like it very much because it is a beautiful, complex, slightly cerebral thing. And finally, I love L'Artisan Parfumeur's radiant, almost transparent 'Timbuktu', which is supposed to be inspired by Malian women's personal grooming rituals. (Bear with me here.) Apparently, the thing to do down the Mali is to make up a very personal dry paste of scented resins, woods and spices, which you then burn over a the embers of a fire while you stand above it drenching your skin and hair in the billowing clouds of smoke. The fragrance has topnotes of green mango peel and the spicy warmth of cardamon, with a background of completely clean, unoily smoke, a bit like well seasoned applewood being burnt on a bonfire. It's absolutely beautiful; I feel like a shaman when I'm wearing it.

So that's me for you. Now I simply must do some actual work.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Trash of the Titans

I nipped off to see the remake of Clash of the Titans down the old kino the other day, having loved the 1981 film as a kid---Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Arsula Undress as Aphrodite---what wasn't to like? I resisted taking along a half-bottle of whiskey and a box of chocs, as recommended by Gwyneth Lewis in her Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression, but it was a close-run thing. It was that kind of evening, and I wanted trash.

And trash I duly got. What a meretricious crock o'shyte this remake was! I sat there in the fetid, popcorn-scented dark rolling my eyes at the screen. The first thing that's wrong with it is the absurd manufactured plot-device of having human beings rebelling against the Olympians for their arbitrary rule (what-ev-ah), a feature wholly, unimaginably alien to the religion and culture of the ancient world. Ditto the importation of concepts like redemption, salvation, and sin, all put into the mouth of a kind of loony proto-Christian sadhu, which map very awkwardly indeed onto pre-Christian culture---even this hyperkinetic imaginary version thereof. Hades, of course, was the principle victim of this polytheological reformation, inevitably being cast as a kind of devil-figure. Being played by Ralph Fiennes as a cross between Richard III and his own Lord Voldemort didn't help. Whilst gloomy and unloved in classical mythology, Hades nevertheless doesn't merit rewriting as a kind of evil, hunchbacked creep.

The casting was deeply idle---see Fiennes, above---with Sam Worthington playing the same identikit dim beefcake as he had in Avatar complete with unGreek crewcut; poor Polly Walker, magnificent bust straining under its sheath of gold crepe, simply reprised her role as Rome's Atia under a different name, one eye no doubt fixed on the paycheck. Throughout there were cinematographic 'borrowings', shall we say, from better and more imaginative pieces of epic film-making, which made the film feel cheap and whorish. The Stygian witches, for example, were embarrassing rip-offs of Guillermo del Toro's signature style of monster, with their noseless, eyeless faces and elongated, black-tipped fingers:



Much too was shamelessly ripped from Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy---the shots of Perseus on his flying horse ducking and diving after some leathery-winged nasties were plain copies of the battle of Minas Tirith, as were the mobile souks erected on the back of the giant eliphaunts, sorry, scorpions. Gemma Arteton's Io (shorn here of any bovine associations) was simply a kind of Arwen redux, complete with the kind of deep, breathy/sexy posh English voice that the lovely Liv Tyler affected so well for the role, quite different from her normal East Coast squeak.* Well-draped if a bit heavy on the Touche Eclat, Arterton had a kind of Junoesque quality which struck me as authentically Greek (just about the only thing in the film that was.) Here she is, wearing, well, let's just call it an 'item':



The casting highlights, on the other hand, were my favourite actor, the gorgeous Hans Matheson, and poor old Nicholas Hoult, fresh from sporting a soft-focus angora jumper in Tom Ford's A Single Man. As I watched the pair of them clambering about in deep tans and leather miniskirts, I reflected wistfully upon the Greek words erastes and eromenos, which certainly whiled away some of the film's longeurs.

The saddest thing about the remake, I decided, was the intermittently stunning art direction. Everywhere you looked, there was the luminous spectacle and inspired design which shows that a version of the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid could be done which would enrapture the senses. If a heightened, mythic version of the ancient world can be done this convincingly on screen, then why not film something worth filming?! You could do all three epics in sets of six 45-minute episodes, if you employed clever, literate screenwriters who would be prepared to really familiarize themselves with the poems. A pipe dream, I suppose. But why couldn't Dido's palace in Aeneid 1 and 4 be like the Great Hall of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, which even had dancing girls sporting passable imitations of Minoan costume? There was a dreadful scene in which Gemma Arterton and Sam Worthington have a bit of a flirt in the hold of Charon's barge on the Styx (a genuinely new thought, that), but as they stood on the rickety jetty looking out over the misty river---her impassive in a white woollen cloak, him in armour---I thought: in a film-version of the Aeneid, Aeneas and the Sibyl could look just like this. But then the silly bastards went and spoiled it by having a Charon who looked like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean. OK, he was a kind of medieval Death-figure even in the original, but that's no excuse. Charon has a beard, people; his eyes are like fixed flames, according to Virgil, in a very strange phrase.**

For all that, there were some gorgeous touches. Pegasus (with or without the definite article) was impressive: we got to see some pegasikoi too, as it were---little colts with lovely downy wings like goslings. Medusa looked oddly Art Nouveau, more glassy Franz von Stuck than archaic apotropaion, but she wasn't half bad. And when she turned someone to stone, all the snakes on her head reared and hissed at the same time, which was a nice detail. There was also a rare moment of genuine intertextual humour when Perseus and his men were searching through the armoury of Argos for equipment. Perseus turns up a ridiculous mechanical owl, clearly the unbelievably naff 'Bubo' of the 1981 original. As it clicks and whirrs he asks what the hell it is, totally bemused. 'Just leave it', snaps the Argive captain, wearily.

The original Bubo, however annoying, did give the opportunity for a skillful cameo from Susan Fleetwood's glacially cerebral Athena (below), the eighties film giving a much better sense of Olympus as a divine society than the remake, which gave the gods' individual personalities very short shrift.



Up on the sacred mountain---the architecture of which looked a bit like the Skylon from the 1951 Festival of Britain---we saw a kind of golden-armoured Apollo (HE'S A BLOND, YOU IDIOTS), and old Julian Bashir from Deep Space 9 made a very improbable appearance as Hermes. No one else had a speaking part: no Hera, no Athena, no Ares, no nuffin'. Liam Neeson blustered about, Irish accent coming and going, looking very much the same as he had thirty years before as Gawain in John Boorman's Excalibur, turning up every so often as an Odinic wanderer, having blundered in (like the Kraken) from the wrong mythology.

A mystifying experience. All in all, my advice would be: if you're going to see it, don't see it sober, and secondly, watch the well-acted if campy original first.

* * *

*Never understood this. Most American women under thirty-five sound a bit like cartoon mice to my British ear. ('Sweeweewheedle, like, wheedlewheet?!!') My old housemate had an American friend with exactly this kind of abrasive, rape-alarm voice; I remember being down the far end of my old garden weeding when the words 'AND MY BREASTS WERE, LIKE, REALLY REALLY SOOOOORE?!!!!!!!!!!!!!' came shattering jaggedly through the air outside as the window was opened.

**stant lumina flamma, Aeneid 6.231. This is an odd, compressed, construction, though the meaning is clear: 'his eyes stand with flame', literally, but apparently something like 'his eyes are fixed and fiery'. I often wonder if this isn't a use of the 'standing' verb as a kind of verb 'to be', analogous to the use of the (directly cognate) atá in Irish.
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