Every year around this time, otherwise intelligent, thoughtful magazines like Vanity Fair and Esquire sheepishly wedge a dozen pages of slavering hucksterism into their December issues, presumably out of duty to their ad sales departments. In the process they erode and taint the editorial authority they've spent the previous 11 months shepherding. (Maybe the previous 9 months; January and February are for rebuilding trust violated in December.)
Unlike pizza and horror films, holiday gift guides, when bad, are not still pretty good. Even good holiday gift guides – full of interesting, unfamiliar objects and demonstrating some visual restraint – are bad if they turn up in the wrong place. In that sense they're more like sex: when bad, they repeatedly miss the mark, awkwardly pushing forward with an unearned sense of intimacy and shared experience that leaves everyone involved embarrassed and compromised. But also, like good sex enjoyed with the wrong person, a thoughtful, well-curated holiday gift guide can still be completely inappropriate, can still infect with a sense of shame that immediately begins seeping everywhere — across pages, across lives.
Esquire decided to pass the gift guidance buck to director Barry Sonnenfeld this year, and he does a suitable job of putting a face on the villainy and drawing negative attention away from the men on the masthead, but reading through the guide you can't ignore the fact that Sonnenfeld was a pawn for Esquire's editors. They're responsible for the decision to bring him in, and almost certainly for most of the rote, unimaginative products on proffer, too. The approach must have gone something like this: "Okay, we've got this sleep-inducing array of gift ideas, mostly just crap the ad guys strongly suggested we include — somebody create a distraction!"
Besides the burst of smoke that is Sonnenfeld, there's also a weird, incongruous, really hot "elf" woman on every page of the guide, doing things like holding a gift-wrapped chainsaw and kneeling with a six-pack of gift-wrapped beer, while wearing a tank-top, panties, and glittery gold stilettos. Weirdly, on the one page dedicated to gift ideas for "Her," the elf woman is depicted unwrapping herself, as if to suggest that this Christmas your wife or girlfriend might let you bring home a hooker for a threesome, and furthermore that it will count as your gift to her.
The other she-gifts are more appropriate, but also way, way less exciting. They include a boring pair of earrings, a girly-colored camera, a boring scarf, and lingerie from The Gap. I guess perfume was deemed too rote even for this crummy gift guide. Wait! There's the perfume down at the bottom, in embarrassment-size font, the font size pharma companies use to write "This medication may cause finger loss" at the bottom of their "gift guides."
But so all of the men's gift suggestions, we're told, are made by Barry Sonnenfeld. First of all, why the hell would you want Barry Sonnenfeld's suggestions on this score? Is his life likely to be at all similar to the one most of us are living? Doesn't he have assistants who run his personal affairs for him? Doesn't he have a lengthy catalog of houses, and social clubs consisting entirely of his ex-wives, and spaceships full of disposable income? The answer – going on gut instinct and no research – is definitely yes, and yet we're to believe that Sonnenfeld is still a sufficiently regular Joe that he can recommend three different current model cell phones to us, four different relatively cheap cameras, and three different wifi storage drives. Because Barry Sonnenfeld works at Best Buy on Saturdays, maybe?
There are a couple of ideas that obviously do come from Sonnenfeld's brain, or that of his publicist, or that of his publicist’s assistant, and they're as silly and detached from reality as you'd expect. So amongst the labored listings of consumer-grade electronics, you find a battery-powered chainsaw, a weird bespoke cowboy shirt that he picked up near his "Telluride house," and a Mustang. Like, the car, although the horse probably makes an equally realistic Christmas gift.
If Esquire flails and writhes in their shame over the whole enterprise of publishing a holiday gift guide – throwing a softcore photo shoot and a goofy sorta-celebrity director into the mix, like an ascetic who rends his flesh in near-involuntary expiation – then Vanity Fair takes a far blither tack, unabashedly offering up four pages of objects that are often so absurd as to be of almost baroque inconsequentiality. Truly, the gift-guiders at VF have a nose for weirdly expensive, essentially useless gifts. 'Tokens,' I guess? Yes, there's a perfunctory large-lens point-&-shoot camera thrown in, looking like half of Wall-E's blood-covered head.
But there's also a pheasant backgammon board. It's yours to gift for just $2,895:
No, those aren't real pheasant feathers, just "photographic feathers," according to the designer's website. The website also specifies that it's indeed a backgammon board, which makes you wonder why Vanity Fair calls it a "game board." Are they only vaguely familiar with backgammon? Did they look at this and think, "Well… I know it's some kind of game… thing. Checkers? Or no… bocce? Am I pronouncing that right? It's 'bocky,' right? Anyway, just call the thing a fuckin' game board. Eh…? Of course not! Just 'game board.'" Perhaps, realizing that even for their target gifter, Steve Rattner, 3K is a lot of money for a mere backgammon board, VF is trying to stretch the item's utility. In fairness, you could, if you felt like it, play other games on this board. Tiddlywinks, for example, feels doable. As does Money Count, the game where you count your large bills into piles. And Gold Ingot Count (assuming you're not counting all of your gold ingots).
So, you've bought somebody a twenty-eight hundred dollar backgammon board… do you let slip that it cost somewhere in that neighborhood? Because they're not going to have any idea otherwise. A couple hundred bucks, is going to be their guess. "Oh, you're so very welcome! Of course… of course it's a very, very nice board. You understand that, I'm sure." "Oh my gosh, yeah, it's great! Soooo cool." "Emm… yes, well, just make sure to take very good care of it. It's really quite a board." "Uh, yeah. Yeah, it seems fine." Later that night: "Hey, hon, we need to get Graydon something. He gave me a backgammon board today." "Oh! That was nice. Hmmm. Why don't we get him some of those incredible chocolates?"
Vanity Fair's gift guide also suggests an $800 iPad case, a $5,900 rolling suitcase, and this $15,000 lounger.
In keeping with VF's "fuck it” attitude, the Beauty page boasts six different perfumes, none of them with any kind of qualifying commentary or recommendation. "There are these six perfumes," VF tells us. "Here are pictures of their bottles — can you tell how they must smell?" "Just. Fucking. Buy one. What’s in the bottles? Piss. Fish piss. Million dollar fish piss. You should snap up every bottle you can get your hands on."
Check this thing out:
A guess as to what it is? A long-lasting, super-accurate vibrator? Good deduction, given the 1/2K price tag. It's a neck-wrinkle reducer. Read Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre on how well this kind of crap works. It doesn't bother me so much that it's snake oil, though; to me the ultra-strange thing is that it's a class of gift that actually defies logic. Premise 1: People read holiday gift guides to get ideas that they don't already have in their heads. Premise 2: If a person, a loved one, asks you to buy her something specific, and you decide it's a good idea, then you have no use for holiday gift guides. Conclusion: Things that can't be given as a "surprise," as an unrequested bequeathal, have no logical place in a gift guide.
Half the stuff in Vanity Fair's guide fails this test, but maybe none more so than the $500 neck-wrinkle cream. If a person doesn't specifically request neck-wrinkle cream, you shouldn't buy it on your own initiative. You should not, that is, say to yourself, "Hmmm, her neck-wrinkles have certainly become a distraction this last year. Maybe I'll splurge on some really nice neck-wrinkle cream, and kill two birds with one stone: One, she'll know I love her enough to drop half a K on a cosmetic product. Two, she'll understand how important it is to me that she begin to address her burgeoning waddle."
This is an entire class of gift that, like dog shit in a poorly maintained yard, litters the purgatory of gift guides: the Ungiveable Gift. Ungiveable Gifts don't necessarily need to be hiding a passive-aggressive face-slap, as this neck cream does. Barry Sonnenfeld's $40,000 Mustang is also ungiveable, because how the hell do you give someone $40,000 worth of anything that they didn't pretty much specifically identify as something they'd love to have? You have to be insane - not just wealthy, but megalomaniacal. Nicolas Cage might conceivably, without asking first, give someone a $40,000 Mustang for Christmas.
Town & Country
If the Ungiveable Gift is the dreamer's idea of what's appropriate, then the Fantasy Macho Gift is the gift given to men by the detached - those long ago zombified by Christmas. The Fantasy Macho Gift’s understanding of what is actually, in the real world, masculine and desirable to dudes… is nuts. Here, for example, is something that Town & Country magazine recommends – recommends, not recommends against – for the "man of all seasons":
Which is clearly for a fantasy macho guy. Well, to be clear, a polo jersey (I think that's a polo jersey?) is for some real people: it’s for people who play polo. But the number of polo players who happen to read T&C is definitely under a thousand. Right? Definitely. For everyone else who subscribes, or buys off the newsstand, or steals from a dentist's office, this Rapha Galibier jersey is a crazy, crazy gift. I guess a non-polo-playing man might wear this to mow the lawn sometime? Like if he was feeling hungover and irritable, and for some reason his brain screamed "DUMB STUPID T-SHIRTS!!" when he opened his T-shirt drawer, then yeah, he might end up wearing his Rapha Galibier jersey – "THIS fuckin' ass thing," maniacal laughter.
Here's another gift that isn't appropriate for any adult, but that seems especially inappropriate for a "man of all seasons," which is exactly who Town & Country recommends it for:
Yes, Town & Country suggests cashmere playthings for the man of all seasons. They flat-out like the idea. Town & Country – more in thrall, it seems, than is any other magazine to a fantasy notion of masculinity – also suggests a Prada dop kit ("travel kit"), a $500 scented candle, and a canoe. There's nothing wrong, of course, with giving a man of all seasons a canoe, assuming he lives on a river or a bay — indeed, that's exactly the move. But that's a pretty rare condition – living on a waterbody and being a man of all seasons and not owning your preferred watercraft – and so one begins to feel, reading this, even as a man who enjoys seasons and water and giving and getting gifts, that one has paddled into yet another goddamned recursive holiday gift guide eddy. And one wonders if anybody out there is doing anything sincere, and whether that's even possible in this crossfire of editorial sophism and ad-sales unction.
In the hopes of discovering something more gritty, grounded, and I guess sane, I foolishly picked up Men's Fitness, Dec. 2011, and entered a world of 2D dementia. MF's gift guide is boring and redundant with others of its kind – phones, cameras, speakers, random sports equipment (including a weirdly crappy and non-aspirational Wal-Mart mountain bike(??)) – but it's most interesting for forcibly entrée-ing you into the sad, sad world of "advertorial" gift guides, which are pages in the magazine staked out by the ad department – like, fenced off by the ad department, not just influenced by them – that feature one or a couple of "friends of the magazine." These "sponsored" gift guides always make the official ones look scrupulous and considered by comparison, but Men's Fitness's are memorably sucky. Check out page 42 of the current issue of Men's Fitness:
Recommended here as "the best stuff to give and get this holiday season" are a watch by "Bulova"(?), an electric shaver from "Wahl"(?), and a crazy "CarMD vehicle health system" that promises to interact with any current car via a USB plug, a CD, 2xAA batteries, and some kind of really cheap-looking digital tire gauge.
In a somewhat more official-looking cash-driven piece-of-shit advertisement, Men's Fitness readers are apprised of Cowboys & Aliens (the recent film); the "New Versa Gripps Pro," which are a weight-lifting glove thing that now, for hazy reasons, comes in camouflage; and this DOA jacket from "ADX," which is said to be ideal for a run, on the mountain, or for wearing out at night:
How defeated are you, as someone who worked on Cowboys & Aliens at whatever level, when you open Men's Fitness and see your movie advertised alongside Versa Gripps Pro's new camouflage glove-thing and ADX's barrel-bottom-insulating jacket? That's the moment when – if you weren't sure before – you know without question that your movie was force-fed shit by reality.
Speaking of when Reality sets down your plate and it's not the filet mignon you ordered: What a shit assignment to get from Esquire if you're Barry Sonnenfeld. You've decided, for whatever (maybe even laudable) reason, that you want to start bylining at a magazine or two. Probably you're bored, rich and bored, but not dead yet! Not inside. You're a thinker, always have been – you've got drive, that's how by-God you got where you are today – and frankly, when you read these magazines, Esquire, GQ, Outside… you can write like that! You can carry a reader's attention for five, six pages, no problem. Hell, you carry viewers' attention, millions of 'em, for two hours. Fuck it: there's no reason you shouldn't have a byline in one of these things — it’d be kinda cool. So you have your publicist reach out. "Hi, Barry? It's Melissa. Yeah, Esquire came back – finally! – and they have something really fun for you. Here's the deal…" Fuck. Poor Sonnenfeld. He was looking for a monthly 1,000 words on what he thinks is hip in film today. Or a piece on what it's like to influence a culture that you also live in. Or something about where technology – especially the A/V stuff, but really everything – is headed, updated every month or two. Instead: "Hey, yeah, so Mr. Sonnenfeld, basically what we need you to do is talk to our guy Mike for like five minutes and we'll take care of the rest." But… "No, I mean the thing is with this piece, we basically have the products? Or most of them anyway? And then if we can get you to reflect on a couple of them with Mike, and then maybe throw in one or two of your own things… does that make sense?" Poor bastard. Dude needs to go collaborate with Tom Clancy on an Alien Takeover series that he can later convert to film, not waste time on junk like this.
You know who Barry Sonnenfeld should have had his publicist reach out to? Shotgun News — "The World's Largest Gun Sales Publication." Why? Because these dudes are doing whatever they want, and they'd have let Barry Sonnenfeld do whatever he wanted (as long as he could relate it to weapons). This is a magazine that knows its rubric in a time when most do not; while most periodicals have tried to expand their gaze, Shotgun News has pressed its brow to the scope. Success? Hard to say. The flimsy, ink-bleeding pages of SN are cut unevenly — often, on my copy, slicing off the page number.
Here are some articles from the December 2011 issue of Shotgun News:
KOKALIS: SCAR 17S — Big-time Battle Rifle
BALKAN PEACEMAKER: The Gasser Revolver
MATTHEWS: An Easy Uzi Build
CB CAPS: Anachronism or Just the Thing?
All of them are listed on the cover, and there's no table of contents. Ask yourself this: What kind of magazine doesn't even bother to print a table of contents? Answer: The kind whose readers read every single page.
Hardcore stuff, and hard not to respect. The specifics may strike you as unattractive – who the hell's actually reading this stuff? – but the cogency of a magazine with no single advertisement or article that doesn't deal with guns… it's impressive. Especially today, when all the old monthly greats have happily swapped their unique voice for the hope that they can speak with lots of different voices, to lots of different people.
Of course, there's one more article flagged on the cover of SN, up above the masthead in a smaller font, not exactly center-of-the-bull's-eye but still tough to miss: "FORTIER: AR ACCESSORIES FOR CHRISTMAS FUN!"