Wednesday, April 16, 2008

So, the Steve McQueen, the Elvis, or the Peter Fonda?

by Charlie Kondek

I grew up reading Esquire, GQ, Details, People and my mother's Cosmopolitans. I used to really escape into these magazines, especially Esquire - they seemed to offer access to another world. Not just the world of adulthood, but the world of sophisticated adulthood, of adventure, romance, glitz.

Esquire and GQ have really suffered lately, in my opinion, reverted to world-weary, seen-it-done-it-what-do-I-invest in next elan. Worse, the magazines more completely resemble web sites - no articles, just lists and sidebars and images, endlessly. I don't want my magazine looking like a web site. But I have a new champion for men's magazine writing: Men's Vogue. I started reading the magazine about a year ago and have been very happy with each issue. Besides Men's Journal and Sports Illustrated and a few others, usually of the zine or cult variety, this is my favorite glossy.

Really, Men's Vogue includes, in every issue, stuff I think any magazine of the sophistiacted globe-trotting kind should have. Take, for example, what was in the first issue I read.

-an article about the tradition of gambling on Macao and how that's being changed by new international investors

-the travel adventures of model Sophie Dahl

-a story about a shop in Milan that specializes in recapturing the romance of being a rich man in the 1920s and 30s by selling vintage watches, travel items and other accessories

-an article on tennis star James Blake that also featured pics of him in various coterie

-an article on the new "Bond girl," Eva Green ("when French women are beautiful, they hurt with their perfection")

-an article about different barber shops. This one chap in London says there are three basic haircuts for men: the Steve McQueen, the Elvis, and the Peter Fonda. I thought that was just great. This barber was the stylist on Snatch and Layer Cake.

...and more. It seems like all my interests are there. Crime? Check. Books and film? Check. Travel? Check. Sports? Check. Sure, I skip the architecture section and the food section but reading a magazine is not usually about reading it cover to cover. Another issue had an article about how art is being stolen out of the Italian countryside. Isn't that awesome? Not just an article about crime - cool, weird crime. I enjoyed it like I did when I was a teenage kid.

I had some of the same reservations as when I was a kid, though, and some new ones. When I was a boy, I felt partially disgusted at what I read because it involved the world of the moneyed and I knew that was, at best, a lie, at worst, evidence of the economic unfairness that plagues the world. (I was a bit clasisst even then and have always hated materialistic people.) This time around, what I noticed was the quality of the writing, something I've paid more attention to as I've grown as a writer. Each piece in the magazine was smooth, clear, clever - and they all sounded the same. Further, they lacked a certain quality and I finally figured out what it was. Authenticity. They lacked authenticity. In fact, I caught parts that I thought were out-right lies. (Sophie Dahl was trapped for days on a drifting ship with Chechen mobsters and spent the days "teaching them Aretha Franklin's greatest gospel hits?" Ah, no, I don't think so. Another writer claimed that he got into so much gambling trouble during his first semester at Cambridge he was "forced to take a job on a North Shore oil rig." Right.)

But it's still a pleasure, perhaps a guilty pleasure, to read these. And I realized something else about how magazines make the magic they do. The ads - and there are tons of them - the ads tell a story in images, an ongoing story woven into the narrative of the entire magazine. It's the same kind of story told in airports. You look at all these people going places with all this promise and you make up stories about them in your head, about who they are, where they are going, and what will happen to them. The narrative of Men's Vogue is: You are rich. You are going places, internationally, with alluring, attractive and potentially dangerous people. You are attractive. You are the star of this movie. And the director and the screenwriter. We are the art directors, the prop makers, and the editors. Here are the pictures to prove it.

That's what thrilled me when I was 16. As a man of 35, it's nice to revisit that, even if I have a different perspective. That's a topic for another day!

By the way, this post was based on something I wrote at the wonderful message board Voices from Beyond.

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