“Hearing”: producer/director, Larry Klein; writers, Klein, Diane Ackerman; editors, David McCormick, Tamsin Parry; camera, Andrew L. Young, Swami Hansa, Bob Elfstrom, Joe Friedman, Ian Salvage; sound, John McCormick, Graham Morris, Richard Brause, Doug Dunderdale. “Smell”: producers/directors, Michael Gunton, Klein; director, Nigel Ashcroft; writers, Gunton, Ackerman; editors, Ashcroft, Darren Flaxstone; camera, Brian McDairmant, Mike Fox, Eric Huyton, Erich Roland; sound, Fraser Barber, John McCormick.
“Taste”: producer/director, Thomas Levenson; writers, Levenson, Ackerman; editors, Ashcroft, Flaxstone; camera, Boyd Estus, McDairmant; sound, Fraser Barber, John Garrett. “Touch”: producer/director, Peter Jones; writers, Jones, Ackerman; editors, Ashcroft, Flaxstone; camera, McDairmant, Neil Curry, Erich Rowland, John Waters, Andy Young; sound, Barber; touch therapy actors, Roger McKern, Angela Newmarch. “Vision”: producer/director, Carroll Parrott Blue; writers, Blue, Ackerman; editors, David McCormick, Tamsin Parry; camera, McDairmant, Jeremy Humphries, Claudia Raschke, Ian Salvage; sound, Barber, Michael Becker, Kevin Meredith, Bill Brucklieb.
Drawing upon her 1990 book “Natural History of the Senses,” poet and New Yorker staff writer Diane Ackerman has fashioned an absorbing tapestry of media essays on human sensuality. She makes no effort to explain the workings of the brain in the tasks of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching, since science has far to go in finding answers. The “mystery” in her series title is, for once, well chosen.
Luxuriating in the primal ooze of a health spa’s mud bath, timidly approaching a potentially lethal nibble on a Japanese fish delicacy, marveling at the rainbow spectrum in a Navajo sand painting, Ackerman becomes an eager participant in her own storytelling.
Cultural contrasts enrich her narrative. A deaf woman prattles hopefully about a proposed ear implant that will bring her her husband’s voice for the first time; scenes of her treatment alternate with the chanting of Maori villagers anxious to maintain their culture against gentrification; on opposite sides of the world, the struggle goes on to hold on to a vital sound.
The “taste” segment follows a similar path, swinging back and forth between the seasoning ritual among the cooking pots of a multistarred French gustatorial shrine and the redolence of a Mexican farm kitchen with a dozen variants of chili simmering on a primitivestove.
Loyal viewers of the Discovery or Learning channels will find most of this familiar stuff, perhaps, but seldom so luxuriously presented, with a wealth of computer graphics helping viewers trace a fragrance or view through sensory receptors to the proper place in the cranium. The insinuating, agreeable musical backing by The Insects, most of it electronic, becomes in itself a sweep through the senses: colorful as well as resonant.
What comes across most vividly through these five hours is the impression that the senses, however separate in the human brain, are remarkably interactive as well. A connoisseur of perfume talks of the “bass notes” or “top notes” of a fragrance; a Rodin sculpture captures the essence of a kiss as a mingling of sight and touch. The cinematic “feelies” of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” seem a little closer in these well-chosen images, which manage to be vivid, loud , fragrant, delicious and tangible, all at once.