Talk’s Celebrity Blues

Talk Magazine Cover The second issue of Talk magazine, Tina Brown and Harvey and Bob Weinstein and Cathleen Black’s Wagnerian exercise in Gesamtkunstsynergy, has been on newsstands for a week now. Did you know that? Did anyone? Isn’t even silence about Talk newsworthy? This strangely underhyped event might have passed unnoticed had not the ever-vigilant Mickey Kaus of invented a game: Count the number of Miramax plugs in the new issue! (Kausfiles came up with four, which seems low. Note to Mickey: Johnny Depp hasn’t got a Miramax movie coming out right at this very moment, but with those tattoos and all, he’s got a Miramax feel to him. If it isn’t branding, it’s co-branding.)

The hypesters have wearied of the hype, but Culturebox is ready to Talk. Having worked on a few magazine startups in her day, she had felt it rude to comment until issue No. 2 came out. First issues are like out-of-town opening nights. No one knows how to do their job yet, writers flub their lines, editors have nervous breakdowns. But a month has passed, and now a week. Herewith, a few remarks.

First question: What kind of magazine is it? First answer: A beautiful one. Talk magazine is a magazine whose visual conception is so tight that even the bar code is a design element. You pick the thing up and it demands to be flipped through. It doesn’t demand to be read with the same urgency, though. The editorial vision is a lot looser. This is probably deliberate–after all, the magazine is supposed to be chatty–but chatty doesn’t have to mean a lack of rigor. The following tier of headlines, “Cultural Concierge/Land of the Pharoahs/Art in the age of the pyramids,” communicates no sense of what this piece is actually about or why I need to read it now, as opposed to several thousand years ago. Chatty doesn’t have to mean writers should be allowed to make fools of themselves through excessive preening. Three-and-a-half pages on how humiliated a woman with professional credentials was when her friends discovered that she liked to keep house? British food writer Nigella Lawson on how unbearably sophisticated her and her friends’ palates have become?

If you try to flip away from the self-congratulation, you come across the synergy. Don’t get me wrong. Synergy’s only a problem if it causes editors to pick boring subjects, or boring approaches to subjects. An intelligently-written assessment of 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace still manages only to reproduce general criticisms leveled at him with more specificity in Michael Mann’s new movie. Note to Tina: Consider how fat a target Wallace and 60 Minutes could be, if an editor ever wanted to pay someone to reinvestigate a few of their pieces.  Then consider that this represents another Disney tie-in. The movie, The Insider, which is about CBS’s suppression of a 60 Minutes interview with a tobacco-industry whistleblower, is being released by Miramax’s sister company, Touchstone. Try to decide whether this would look  like you were sucking up to your bosses too much or not enough. Then skip the whole thing.

But so what if Talk fails to grip our attention? We really like handling it. Rolling it up and sticking it in our bag, as Tina Brown had suggested we do. Pulling it out on the subway and mooning over the unbelievably gorgeous ads. In the end, we decided it was our approach that was wrong, not the magazine. Talk is a fashion book, not a general-interest magazine. Talk, like talk, is meant to be consumed in bursts–style bursts (style writer Bob Morris on why Amtrak uniforms are so fashionable), intellectual-style bursts (Skip Gates on why race is now a fiction), hairstyle bursts (Barney’s window-dresser Simon Doonan on why rock star Michael Bolton should revert to his bad hair of yesteryear).

Our second question: What is Talk really about? By issue No. 2, we decided that there definitely was a message. Consider the profiles (the preferred genre of the magazine): Elizabeth Taylor, in a delightfully bizarre piece by Paul Theroux that finally conveys just how weird the woman is, saying, “I’ve had some things happen in my life that people wouldn’t believe.” Johnny Depp, who cuts himself whenever those kinds of things happen to him. Judah Folkman, the biomedical researcher who landed on the cover of the New York Times for having discovered the cure for cancer, then found himself ostracized by his colleagues because he hadn’t, really, though he never claimed he had. Alec Guinness on how he hates having become famous for his worst role, which was as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The message is, fame sucks. It really, really makes celebrities suffer. I’m down with that. I believe it to be true. Think of Diana and the paparazzi , and all the bad stuff that’s happened to people, such as the Clintons, because of the tabloids and the tabloid mentality of even the legitimate press. So: Rein in the press! Rally round the cause! It’s a movement for the millennium! Hey, did you hear? There’s going to be a screening of the movie version of Talk (by Miramax, of course) to benefit a Celebrities’ Rights Campaign! Sean Penn will be there! Wanna go?