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« Elsewhere | Main | Sucked In »

September 13, 2006

Chunky!

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Looking through the cover story in a recent issue of British Esquire, it seemed to me that an important line has been crossed. See if you can guess what it is from these scans.

First, the issue's cover:



Now, the story itself:





Tick, tick, tick ... Time's up. Answers please.

Here's what struck me, at least once I was over my initial "Wow, that Gretchen Mol sure is a honey, isn't she?" response: Where's the story? This Esquire package consists entirely -- entirely! -- of photos, graphics, boxes, bits 'n' bytes. The few words that play a role have been punched up with colors and font-games; they seem more about visual punctuation and rhythm than they do about meaning and sense. In any case: I don't know that I've ever before run across a non-tabloid, glossy-magazine cover story that didn't include, as part of the package, an actual article.

Is this a good or a bad development? As usual, I'm of several minds. On the one hand: Who really needs yet another actress profile? And how many writers really bring a little something extra to the task? If it's all going to be junk and crap anyway -- sexy and dazzling browsing material -- better that it should be straightforwardly what it is, no? Why pretend to be selling something of substance when all you're doing is throwing around confetti and tinsel?

On the other hand: What do editors these days have against the traditional reading experience? And -- while I adore visuals and think that the text-thing can certainly be overdone -- a magazine package like this one can seem like going out for dinner and being served nothing but appetizers and snacks. Where's the meal?

Some more general questions: Doesn't it sometimes seem as though media people are determined to turn everything they touch (and peddle, of course) into a highlight? And what becomes of life when everything in it has been pushed to the top -- when everything is clamoring aggressively for attention, and nothing is held in reserve? Don't our quieter, less-pumped-up experiences merit some appreciation too? (I'd love to think that one of the things that 2Blowhards offers is some attention to our shared cultural backdrops ...)

* Related: I yakked a bit here about how traditional, old-media, long-flowing-rivers-of-text are being chunked up into grab-bags of headlines, graphics, visuals, and boxes -- and about how this is becoming common practice even in the books world. Is everything being turned into a reference-source / catalogue to be browed and grazed?

BTW, British Esquire is a snazzy and enjoyable -- and, despite all the cyber-jazz, literate -- publication. Spending a few hours with it is like attending a fun party: Lots of carefree style and larkiness, minus the stress and franticness that poison so many commercial American magazines.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at September 13, 2006




Comments

In principle, I like this approach to movie star fluff pieces. Once I get an eyeful of the actress, I am unfortunately drawn to the text, because of a natural tendency to read things. But when the text just consists of bite-size phrases, as it does here, it spares me and my fellow logophiles the bother of reading about how shy she was in high school and what happened in her last doomed relationship and silly quotes about how we all have a duty to save the planet and such.

That said, although the photography is very fine in its slick and artificial way, the graphic design of this piece is dreadful, a typographical shriek that says "Hey dude, I'm sorry the editor insisted on my using some of those -- what do you call 'em? -- words, but see how I made it so you don't want to bother with them and you can concentrate on how cool I am!"

Posted by: Rick Darby on September 13, 2006 11:48 AM



Rick -- That's the best and funniest bit of media criticism I've read in a long time!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 13, 2006 12:41 PM



I'm resigned to the idea that if I were to write a piece for a magazine-- on more serious subjects, that is-- it would have to be in this form. But I have a valid excuse: an epic case of ADD. I hope this isn't true of reporters and editors today. I want to be the exception, not the rule.

Remember, too, that some very important works have been written in this form. Hoffer's 'The True Believer' and other works come to mind, as do Pascal's 'Pensées,' and Psalms and Proverbs in the OT.

(Hoffer could write in traditional forms as well; 'The Temper of Our Time' is a collection of his full-length essays and articles, including a mind-opening, indeed mind-blowing, 1964 piece for the New York Times Magazine titled "The Negro Revolution", in which he describes the civil rights movement we lionize today as just as fraudulent as the one we have now. This from a man who worked alongside blacks on the docks and was highly sympathetic to their plight. But that's a whole 'nother issue... back to the subject at hand.)

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on September 13, 2006 1:43 PM



I can't stand this layout!!! Hurts my eyes, my head. I just want to turn the page really fast.

Posted by: annette on September 13, 2006 1:59 PM



When I saw the title "Chunky," and then looked at the pages from the article, my initial thought was that you were pointing out how Gretchen Mol looked a little, well, chunky (in a good way), at least compared to many hott young celebrities.

Posted by: Peter on September 13, 2006 2:08 PM



Reg -- I'm ashamed to say I've never read Hoffer. As for chopped-up ways of assembling things: like you, I often like it. It sometimes seems to me to be more natural than the usual linear thing, and that it's about time this development finally occurred.

Annette -- It's a lot to process, isn't it? I wonder what makes some jumbled-up layouts fun and pleasing, while others feel like an assault. Sigh: if only I had actual design talent ...

Peter -- Whoops, I hadn't anticipated that, and it's very ungallant of me. I'm actuallya big Gretchen Mol fan, are you? I find her glam, sexy, funny, charming, and I love the way she's a heartier physical type than we generally get these days. I haven't caught the Bettie Page movie yet (not yet on DVD) -- have you? This Paul Schrader movie isn't much, but it certainly offers an eyeful of Gretchen...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 13, 2006 2:31 PM



I think the movie star profile is the perfect vehicle for this type of treatment--if not this particular layout. It's not like they're trying to explain the finer points of the Schleswig-Holstein question. Though that could probably have benefitted from a good graphic, too.

Posted by: Rachel on September 13, 2006 3:02 PM



"It's not like they're trying to explain the finer points of the Schleswig-Holstein question. Though that could probably have benefitted from a good graphic, too."

Exactly. For example, the article could illustrate how the Holstein's hide is white with black patches, and ... oh wait, wrong Holstein. Never mind.

Posted by: Peter on September 13, 2006 3:20 PM



I was just browsing my prized Sports Illustrateds from the Dolphins' heyday, and once again marvelling at the essays in cigarette ads. Almost every one, in fact, and in many of the other large ads as well. As Michael mentioned, these paragraphs on themes like "Why low tar?" or "Is a longer cigarette really better?" or "What makes a Newport man the life of a party?" were invariably predictable, run-of-the-mill, intellectually unneccessary. But they were there. Unmistakeably, something has changed, some combination of more informed advertising methods, broadening of the target audience, and less comfortability with literacy among the populace.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 13, 2006 3:45 PM



Isn't this all a continuation of the effects of TV--and now the Internet--on print media? Newspapers and magazines have for years tried to add oomph by inserting factoids, mugshots, pullquotes and graphs to boil down the story to its essence for readers who, they believed, were too impatient to read all the way through. Remember the advent of USA Today? I worked for a newspaper chain that had a policy of not allowing more than one page 1 story to jump to the inside--a direct result of the USA Today phenomenon. Of course, what this ends up doing is ignoring the advantages print has over other media--the ability to explain complex subjects and to explore things in detail--and making magazines and newspapers inferior copycats. And I like factoids, mugshots, pullquotes and graphs.

Posted by: Rachel on September 13, 2006 9:28 PM



Wow, that Gretchen Mol sure is a honey, isn't she?

What were we talking about?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 14, 2006 5:01 PM



Good piece Michael – This magazine … “story” … is aimed at people who find People Magazine too intellectually challenging. It is simply amazing how the extra-large type and graphics minimizes the text nearly to the vanishing point.

Sadly, I get the feeling that this "graphic design uber alles" style drowns out everyone, not just those performers who have nothing particularly interesting to say.

By the way, the photos hide one of Gretchen Mol’s most talked about features. A Premiere Magazine piece, noting one of her first magazine appearances, said, “…the actress, then 25, was chosen to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair. Wearing a translucent Alberta Ferretti dress that exposed two perky nipples, she struck a pinuppy sort of pose, shot by Annie Leibovitz, next to the teasing cover line: "Gretchen Mol: Is She Hollywood's Next 'It' Girl?"”

Posted by: Alec on September 15, 2006 8:11 AM



Rachel -- Definitely. It seems to me that what's new is that we now have several micro-generations of young people who have grown up on boxes, graphics, packaging, etc. Where with older people, the trimmin's are understood to be there to help sell the substance, for the younger people, the trimmin's seem to be the whole point, and the traditional substance seems to be felt to be boring gray stuff we'd do better to get rid of. Did anyone expect this development?

J. Goard -- I flipped through an issue of SI the other day, my first look at it in years and years. It's a very different mag these days than it once was!

FvB -- She's a cutie indeed. And who cares what we were talking about?

Alec -- That was a memorably perky VF cover, wasn't it? She was much slimmer then than she is now -- I think I like the heartier Gretchen better than the rail-thin (if stacked) one. Poor Gretchen has been cursed ever since with the reputation of "the girl who got on the cover of VF and then didn't really become a star." It comes up in almost every interview with her. She tends to handle it pretty well. Still, what a funny fate.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 15, 2006 10:30 AM



Michael: Youngsters may be leery of print, but I wouldn't be surprised if various magazines have a prime directive, written by some greybeard at the top, to avoid lengthy articles and go for factoid-filled "packages" in the belief that that's what youngsters want.

But then, I no longer subscribe to *gulp* ANY magazines. The only magazine I read offline these days is The New Criterion, with zero pics. Though I do try to buy the mega fall fashion issues of Vogue etc, all pics. So what do I know?

Whither the magazine industry?

Posted by: Rachel on September 15, 2006 1:38 PM



If you figure it out, let me know!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 15, 2006 1:43 PM



Rachel: It’s funny. We think that reading is (and should be) the norm, and that books have been around forever, but literacy has been rare throughout human history. For most of human existence, people have been illiterate and used pictures and symbols (graphic arts), and of course speech, to convey and interpret information. For example, according to a Wikipedia article, as late as 1840, 33% of men and 44% of women in England signed marriage certificates with a mark because they were unable to read.

The irony is that the post-industrial age, dominated by video and audio stuff without a need for text, is allowing large numbers of people to be comfortably illiterate. I’m not certain how widespread it is, but I am always amazed at how easily Jay Leno is able to find young adults – even many with college degrees – who profess that they never read novels and who are increasingly ignorant of anything but pop culture, but who nonetheless are immensely pleased with themselves.

I’m not sure how this will develop in the future, since the Internet is actually encouraging a continued literacy (blogging, individual fiction) even as audio-visual culture intensifies (MySpace, YouTube, iTunes, etc.)

By the way, although I still read books voraciously, there are only a few magazines I read and practically none that I subscribe to. I have noted in a previous post that I think that online magazines, which can be updated instantly, are killing most weekly magazines, and is having a huge impact on traditional publishing in general.

Posted by: Alec on September 15, 2006 3:53 PM






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