Media Circus: Vice grip

Shiny, ad-stuffed smoking and gambling rags exhort their readers to follow the seven deadly sins path to fulfillment.


James Poniewozik
November 6, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

CONSPICUOUS DISSIPATION - - - >

Plenty of armchair pop-culture analysis (and is there another kind?) has been devoted to the luxe-vice trends that have models, bond traders and bourgeois mommies and daddies alike sampling Cohibas and sipping single malts like so many tinhorn Capones. We're traditional, we're transgressive; we're flush, we're cautious; we feel young, we feel old. The psychology of the magazines that have sprung up in response is far simpler: When consumers are trying this hard to piss away their capital gains, someone is bound to come running with a bucket.

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The category's 5-year-old scion, Cigar Aficionado (December) and its 2-year-old competitor Smoke (Fall) have a Time-Newsweek symmetry; both twin bullet stoppers (580 and 432 pages, plus inserts) draw in readers with proto-suave cover stars (Pierce Brosnan and Alec Baldwin) and profile celebs in quote-heavy smoke rings that evanesce even as you read them. ("It is the end of another work day for Daisy Fuentes. But she is already planning her tomorrows.") More important, though, both are only nominally about tobacco.

Oh, there's plenty of it in there -- news, reviews, cigar-maker interviews -- but, hell, at 1,000 pages combined, there's probably a Braille Bible thrown in somewhere too. No, the story they tell, in the competent blandishments of the upscale sales brochure, is about stuff -- diamond-studded stuff, off-road stuff, stuff in ads, stuff in articles. Cartier, Infiniti, Jameson's, Knob Creek, Range Rover. Where to shop in Bordeaux. How to select a $25,000 digital camera. Smoke has a review of Florida golf schools. Cigar Aficionado has a six-page feature on platinum. Bind the two glossies in morocco leather and you have a late-capitalist novel of social realism Tom Wolfe would envy.

For the serious smoker, Smoke may be the more appealing guide. Its reviews, for example, quote tasters exhaustively, whereas its rival sticks to terse comments and numerical ratings, along the lines of sister publication Wine Spectator. But if the magazines' true appeal is vicarious tax-bracket-jumping, no publication can match Cigar Aficionado, a beautifully laid-out and photographed Mahabarata of indulgence. Whether this head trip is worth $4.95 is another question. But then if you have to ask the price ...

Of course, if the fantasy reader is a gadget-laden Bond at the baccarat table, the reality is a drunk conventioneer with his thumb on the barmaid's ass, and his magazine is 2-issue-old Milton. "We Drink, We Smoke, We Gamble," declares Milton (Fall 1997), which aims to be your one-stop vice supermarket. Indeed its juvenile, depthless articles read like a poseur swinger's cheat sheet. "How to Play Craps without Looking Like a Dork" is typical, as, unfortunately, is "Our Single Guy's POV: The Ass Is Always Greener." And its attempts at classiness are worse, as evidenced by a faux-scholarly economic defense of gambling. Milton's "president" and namesake, by the by, is Milton Berle, who continues to demonstrate -- after making a Ratt video and tangling with RuPaul on an MTV awards show -- his determination to age with indignity. He stars in several ill-advised cartoons, in one ogling a blonde with giant hooters across a poker table and remarking, "If I keep staring at her two of a kind, I'll end up with a large straight" (a joke that appears to conflate five-card draw and Yahtzee). The magazine is like an over-the-hill comedian's blue show, and it may not bode well for the trend; when this crowd makes the party, it's time to head for the coat room.

Yet Milton inadvertently points up an attraction of gambling: It is still too stigmatized a pastime to attract Demi Moore. That is perhaps what makes Casino Player (October) so refreshing. Less a glossed-up walk on the wild side than an accessible trade magazine, it examines gambling -- and not "gaming" -- for readers who will be hitting the tables long after Milton's habituis have gone in for polo or absinthe. Even for pikers the magazine fascinates, with informative features on high-roller problems like how to handle the polygraph test when joining a blackjack team. For the truly specialized, Poker (premiere issue) includes basic and advanced advice and a funny, touching last interview of columnist Mike Royko by his son.

But it may not be long before big slicks horn in here too. Cigar Aficionado includes a lengthy feature on the MegaSports betting network, and even POV (November) has a thorough guide to racetrack betting. My sentimental trend pick, however, is tobacco sniffing, a vice with pricey accouterments and all the right fin de sihcle associations. But then that's my bias: I'm just waiting to walk into Hudson News and demand my copy of Snuff.

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KNOCK-KNOCK! WHO'S THERE? ANITA! ANITA WHO?
ANITA CATCH PHRASE!
- - - >

If I have a problem with Siren (issue 2), it's the subtitle, "For Women Who Get It," recycling as it does the Hill-Thomas-era slogan whose main revolutionary effect was to convince American men that since we're from Mars and they're from Venus anyway, then what the hell, let's make Dick Armey majority leader. The rest of the Bay Area grrrlie mag is six years fresher at least: Unprofessional in the best way, Siren would rather tell you how to stock your toolbox than your purse and offers attitudinous columns and art criticism alongside unpretentious fashion features. The strongest pieces, though, may be the interviews: The second issue includes prostitute-turned-politician Margo St. James, graffiti artist Lady Pink, skydiver Bonnie Dutile and erstwhile Bond villain Famke Janssen, who confounds her interlocutor by choosing to meet in a pastry shop and then ordering nothing but Evian.

HANG SENG PHOOEY - - - >

Around events like the stock-market tumble, newsmagazines tend to be like cops answering a domestic-violence 911. They roll up, all sirens and lights, without doing much besides announcing, "Show's over, nothing to see here, folks." You want perspective, leave the country: The Economist (Nov. 1-7) avoids both alarmism and condescending feather-smoothing in a (mercifully brief) six-page package, focusing largely on the Asian economies where, after all, last week's real news primarily occurred. The cluster is typically concise, dryly funny and resolutely against pat wrap-up. After the American media went from practically offering recipes for baked rat to hailing the Goldilocks Economy's thousand-year reich, here's the Economist on whether the turbulence means anything long-term: "The honest, but unsatisfactory, answer is that it is too soon to say." Thank you. And now a little peace.

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CHRISTWATCH 2000: A NATION DIVIDED - - - >

A chief attraction of running a statistical sidebar on the likelihood of a deity's return is the long odds against being proven wrong that week. Time's and Mother Jones' luck just ran out, though. Time (Nov. 3) reports that 11 percent of Christians believe Jesus will return to Earth around 2000; the religion (sorry, spirituality) special issue of MoJo (December), however, puts the figure at 20 percent of Americans, a percentage that could only square with Time's if about three-quarters of America's non-Christians are keeping their datebooks clear for JC. This is important: How many people have to be at the local swimming pool before I have an even chance of fooling someone with my walk-on-the-fiberglass-pane-suspended-underwater trick? I ain't growing my hair out for nothing.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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