October 6, 2023: Jas Brooks, “The Very Breath of Drama: Scented Cinema Before the Battle of the Smellies”

Dear all,

Please join us for the first Mass Culture Workshop of the year, this Friday! Details below, and full schedule for the quarter forthcoming very soon.

Your 2023–24 Mass Cult coordinators,

Joel and Hugo


The Very Breath of Drama: Scented Cinema Before the Battle of the Smellies

Jas Brooks, PhD Student, Computer Science, University of Chicago

October 6, 2023, 11 AM–12:30 PM, Cobb 310

Prevailing academic documentation and discourse of olfaction’s role in cinema typically grapples with John Water’s Odorama (scratch-and-sniff cards) or the renowned “Battle of the Smellies” in 1960, where Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama clashed in a bid to dominate sensory film experiences. In contrast, pre-1960 scented cinema remains a mystery, poorly documented and mostly chalked up to scent serving as a utilitarian tool to cover up the malodors of the audience or theater. However, this reading remains flawed and must be revised. Through media archaeological methods, over 39 scented film exhibitions occurred in the United States from the 1910s to 1950s, including as part of important presentations integral to Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel’s ascent as a cinematic impresario and definition of modern cinematic viewership. These uncovered experiences and their responses upturn prior misconceptions of smell’s place in cinema. They reveal a strategic and artistic endeavor to expand the cinematic experience (anchoring it closer to “Nature”), fundamentally influence the spectatorial interpretation, and offer theaters a competitive edge.

Jas Brooks (they/them) is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at the University of Chicago. Their research investigates how chemical interfaces can intervene in the rich interactions of everyday life, such as smelling and eating. They independently explore media archaeology, focusing on historical scent technologies and associated media from the 20th century onwards. Their research involves conserving AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision!, capturing oral histories from dot-com era scent tech companies, and uncovering early scented film exhibitions.

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