Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Of Transgender Hitmen and Celebrity Scents

Random reflections on Hit & Miss (2012)

directed by Hettie McDonald and Sheree Folkson

One way of figuring out what we really care about is to consider how much time we spend on it. If you spend a lot of time on Facebook, for example, it’s pretty clear that you are drawn to the land of the likey. That may sound tautological, but many people who complain about the time wasted on Facebook do not stop to reflect upon the fact that they themselves freely choose to spend their time in that way. They might be writing poetry or running up a mountain or composing music or watching movies or reviewing perfumes. Instead, they choose to survey the terrain of their timeline to view the selfies and status updates on that day—or in the previous hour. I should clarify that I am not judging anyone on this matter but merely agreeing with Aristotle’s observation more than two thousand years ago that

You are what you eat.”

That was a somewhat colloquial translation of the idea more obviously attributable to Aristotle that

Habits build character.”

It occurred to me that one way to gauge the importance of perfume in contemporary society would be to consider how much time people actually spend on perfume. Sure, they spend a slice of their nonessential wallet share on perfume, but in what sense does perfume constitute a part of their Weltanschauung?

I’ve been noticing of late that most contemporary films—many of which aspire to realism—make no mention of perfume, and those which do tend to use it as a part of the scenery. In House of Cards, season 1, a bottle of Tocca perfume is clearly visible on the vanity table of Claire, the main female protagonist (played by Robyn Wright). Given the blue label on the unmistakable (because it’s both attractive and unique) bottle, I believe that the perfume may be Bianca.

But no one talks about or even mentions Claire’s perfume. (I’ll report back if that happens in season 2!) Perhaps that’s because it’s just another accessory, something which she dons as a way of being hip with the upper-middle-class lifestyle in Washington, DC. Ladies wear perfume, don’t they?

This general cultural assumption, that “ladies wear perfume,” is briefly displayed in the six-part series Hit & Miss (2012), directed by Hettie McDonald and Sheree Folkson. Before proceeding, let me make clear that I am not commending this series to your viewing attention. Below is my review from IMDB:

Mia, played by Chloë Sevigny, in Hit & Miss (2012)

White Trash Reality TV meets Pedro Almodóvar

11 August 2014
Having invested six hours of my life in this thing—for lack of a better word—I feel compelled to pen a review. There is no question that Hit & Miss is watchable—I watched the whole thing, all six episodes, in spite of the fact that much of what I saw was less than appealing. I viewed two installments of Hit & Miss each of three nights in a row, finding myself unable to resist. Perhaps the best comparison to make would be to a road kill. I simply could not stop watching this production, no matter how unsavory it became. But the question remains: is that a good or a bad thing?

The story features a trans gender hit woman, actually a hit man in the process of becoming a woman. She's about half way there, popping hormones and dressing the part, though one glaring anatomical piece remains dangling between her legs. The female hormones have done nothing to mitigate her icy ability to dispatch anyone at any time for a wad of cash. In fact, it is her hits which are permitting Mia (played by Chloë Sevigny) to undertake the expensive sex change, which, it is implied, she would have been unable to afford otherwise. Mia, formerly known as "Ryan", grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. We learn among other things that her father was an abusive thug, her family having been firmly anchored in white trash culture. The setting, by the way, is the United Kingdom, so apparently white trash is not a purely American phenomenon.

Suggestions of biological determination abound in this series, which brings us to the radical moral ambiguity of the production, made quite explicit by Mia's discovery that she is the father of a child now parent-less, as his mother has succumbed to cancer. Feeling a responsibility to care for the son whom she sired, Mia moves in with the motley family of bastard children mothered by Mia's former lover—back when Mia was still a he.

The entire series revolves around the role of Mia as she attempts to care for the family of stray kids while simultaneously continuing on as the trusty contract killer of a criminal boss of sorts—he actually seems more akin to an agent, but rather than real estate or manuscripts, he "closes" hits for prospective buyers. Mia's boss regularly calls her to meetings in the upholstered vinyl booth of a seedy café where he pays for previous jobs and hands over a folder of data about the next victim from what appears to be an endless list of persons to be executed for whatever reason was deemed adequate by the person who fronted the cash.

On the one hand, the viewer is pulled to sympathize with Mia as a trans gender protagonist attempting to realize her dream of being a woman—having been, as they say, trapped in a man's body for most of her life. She seems genuinely to care about the children whom she has taken under her wing. On the other hand, the viewer can only be repulsed by the clinical, mechanical conduct of the hit woman, who does not bat an eye at the idea of killing anyone for any reason, provided only that the price is right. For each hit, she dons an eerie "Grim Reaper" black hooded sweatshirt, pants, and boots, which imparts a ritualistic feeling to her fulfillment of the contracts. She works out and trains for the challenges of her profession in a huge empty warehouse, which might be construed as a metaphor for the vacuity of a hit man's soul. The cold, solitary nature of contract killing is more effectively conveyed in classic films such as Le Samouraï (1967), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and starring Alain Delon; and The American Soldier (1970), directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and starring Karl Scheydt.

The bizarre, nearly schizoid, character of Mia may be intended to illustrate the general philosophical thesis that people are not black or white but only shades of moral gray. Mia is clearly a repository of moral sentiment and tries to be a good "dad" (more like a mother, given her current appearance), while at the same time supporting the family with funds procured from terminating with extreme prejudice other "dads", and thereby rendering their children fatherless.

Does any of this make any sense? Not really. It's not a "banality of killing" case à la Adolf Eichmann, because Mia is not an administrator who "facilitates" the slaughter of human beings by other human beings. Instead, Mia directly and physically causes the deaths of her victims. In some ways, Hit & Miss reminds me of the Pedro Almodóvar film in which the viewer is tricked into sympathizing with a character who has sex with a comatose woman. Despite the fine cinematography of this production, it's all vaguely repugnant, in the end.

As we have come to expect, the coverage of perfume in this film--as in most--is minimal. In fact, out of 270 vice-filled minutes, a measly twenty-second sequence is focused on perfume, and nowhere else does it appear again.

The scene opens with Mia walking into the bedroom of the sixteen-year-old girl Riley, one of the children of Mia's former lover Wendy.

Mia is basically snooping around out of curiosity about "girl stuff". She walks into the bedroom, peeks in the closet, sees a perfume bottle reflected in the mirror and is naturally drawn to it.

She walks across the room, picks up the bottle, removes the cap, gives the nozzle a big sniff, and then places the bottle back on the table.

She next notices a cosmetics bag of greater interest across the way.

Inside the bag, Mia finds a tampon, which she takes out and rolls in her hand, apparently relishing the idea of being woman enough to be able to use such a thing.

The scene ends with Riley walking in, catching Mia in the act of essentially fondling a tampon, and railing at her for invading her privacy, but more than anything else calling her out for being a "Weirdo!"

The telltale spherical shape and tiny rhinestone studs belong to one and only one fragrance line: that of Britney Spears. By process of elimination, the red bottle in question can only be Hidden Fantasy.

By sheer coincidence, the penultimate New York Times Perfume News article happens to raise the question of the economic value of celebrity scents, yes, such as those of Britney Spears. It appears that the Elizabeth Arden company is floundering. Who is to blame? Certainly not the creative director who signs off on vat-produced chemical soup sold in garish bottles. No, it appears to be the celebrity fragrance sector itself, we learn in the following rather amusing article (by Rachel Abrams) published on August 19, 2014:

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So much for the sweet smell of success.
Elizabeth Arden, the beauty company, blamed its celebrity fragrance lines featuring Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, among others, for a steep drop in sales in the fiscal fourth quarter.
Its earnings report delivered a bleak picture — recording Arden’s worst quarterly decline in a decade — for a company that has tried to appeal to a younger clientele by teaming up with pop stars and by retooling some of its signature Red Door salons. Along with “Someday,” a soft, musky scent in Mr. Bieber’s line, Elizabeth Arden also has fragrances from the rapper Nicki Minaj and the former teenage idol Britney Spears.
Net sales fell close to 30 percent to $191 million for the three months that ended June 30. For the year, net sales fell to $1.1 billion, from $1.3 billion in 2013.
The immediate future does not look too bright, either. In its earnings release, the company warned that the first quarter of its 2015 fiscal year “will continue to be challenged by the same factors that affected recent quarters.”


Taylor Swift is among the celebrities who have a fragrance line.CreditEvan Agostini/Associated Press

Elizabeth Arden relies more heavily on sales of its fragrances than rivals like Estée Lauder, and it has a large presence in mass-market stores like Walmart. Fragrances make up 75 percent of the company’s sales, while its own brand of cosmetics accounts for 25 percent.
And unlike the high-end fragrances at department stores, celebrity lines stock the shelves at retailers like Walmart and Kohl’s, whose budget-conscious customers have not recovered from the recession.
“The celebrity fragrance market is still a good market,” said Jason Gere, a consumer product analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets “Right now, it seems to be buckling a little bit with the weaker consumer out there.”
The earnings report on Tuesday sent the company’s stock plummeting more than 23 percent.
Companies like Elizabeth Arden have had some success capitalizing on their celebrity partnerships. At its height, Ms. Spears’s perfume generated more than $100 million in sales a year, Mr. Gere said. And celebrities, as well as their handlers, continue to seek partnerships with the fragrance business to help build a star’s brand.
Elizabeth Arden still carries a line of fragrance featuring the actress Elizabeth Taylor, who introduced a fragrance more than 20 years ago, when such celebrity branding was far less common.


Elizabeth Arden markets a fragrance from Justin Beiber called Someday.CreditJamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Since then, the world of celebrity perfumes has become more democratized as many companies have tried to target a younger audience. Perfumes bear the names of actresses like Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry, along with socialites who include Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton.
Elizabeth Arden’s cosmetics mainly appeal to middle-age and older women, who are familiar with its red-and-white logo. For the fragrance lines aimed at younger consumers, however, many of the bottles use designs that prominently feature celebrity names rather than the company logo.
The company’s other celebrity fragrances include lines from Mariah Carey and Usher. And all its perfumes may still have an audience, even if that audience is unwilling, or unable, to buy them right now.
“There’s this attraction to wearing the same things that movie stars wear or singers,” Mr. Gere said. “There’s just this natural aspiration to be like somebody else.”
The company also announced on Tuesday that the private equity firm Rhône Capital had agreed to buy $50 million of preferred stock and warrants to purchase 7.6 percent of the company.
In its earnings release, E. Scott Beattie, Elizabeth Arden’s chief executive, said:
“I am very excited to have Rhône Capital as an equity partner, to support the turnaround of our business in the short term and the continued global growth and development of our brands and organization in the future. I am confident that we have a compelling business plan to improve the company’s performance.”

Why is this article so amusing? (I mean, aside from the non sequiturs such as that celebrities actually wear celebrity scents...) The company's explanation is risible because the whole reason for the celebrity-scent industry is economic. The purpose of having Britney Spears' name on a bunch of mediocre fragrances sold in volume to hoards of women who cannot afford higher-end perfumes is none other than to increase the parent company's bottom line. Is it not? Yet the Elizabeth Arden management team blames the celebrity sector for their poorest quarter showing in a decade.

The real culprit, they then rush to clarify, is the economy. Well, the economy plus the concept of marginal utility. Stated simply: to poor people, a $15 bottle of fragrance costs a lot more than does an expensive bottle to a rich person. Poor people are now so poor that they cannot afford to have more than one bottle even of cheap juice in their boudoir. Riley's choice was Britney Spear's Hidden Fantasy. Whatever other small change she is able to scrape together has been used to put food on the table.

Nice try, Elizabeth Arden, but the extreme poverty of such consumers does not explain why no one else is buying the fragrances either. Yes, by sheer serendipity we have learned through Hit & Miss the true reason for the faltering of the Elizabeth Arden company, thanks to Mia's twenty-second encounter with Riley's bottle of Hidden Fantasy. Having once removed the stopper from the bottle, Mia--who is flush with cash thanks to the many corpses left in her wake--sniffs the nozzle but does not opt to spray. Instead, she replaces the cap, sets the bottle back on the table, turns around and walks away.

I have not tried Hidden Fantasy, which has apparently been discontinued already, after having been launched only in 2008, but I have tried the Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift fragrances pictured above, and I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with Mia, at least on this point.

Call it a hunch, but I somehow doubt that this is helping either:


  1. I'll be happy to send you a decant of it, Sherapop. It's one of my favorite celebuscents, with a very pleasant orange-clove thing over some unfortunately common "white musk." But, yeah, Arden has a heck of a lot of nerve blaming their celebuscents. And - oh my! I did not realize the menage of Minaj (Minajes? Minajs?) had proliferated so!

    1. Thanks, pitbull friend! I am now wondering whether it might be Fantasy, not Hidden Fantasy, because the red looks too orange... What do you think?

    2. On second thought, isn't the Fantasy bottle more pink? What do you think? I should run to TJMAXX and take a look in person! Even if it's been discontinued, I might find some there...

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Very sorry, I accidentally deleted your comment while attempting to manage this site on a Kindle. Here is what you said (I had a copy in email):

      pitbull friend has left a new comment on your post "Of Transgender Hitmen and Celebrity Scents":

      From the stills you've posted, I definitely think it's HF, not F. F is very pink.

      Posted by pitbull friend to sherapop's salon de parfum at September 4, 2014 at 6:38 PM


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