Turn the pages to find the gems Treasures: Atlantic Monthly and George both bury first-rate features in second-rate positions.


March 15, 1998|By Cynthia Dockrell | Cynthia Dockrell,BOSTON GLOBE

Why do magazines so often bury their best stories?

Time and again, the articles I am drawn to are the ones earning maybe a two-word tease on the cover, down below some celebrity's cleavage. You can only get so mad at publishers for doing this, since celebrity is destiny these days, but I'll bet I'm not alone in wishing the mainstream mags would just take a risk for once.

The March issues of both George and Atlantic Monthly illustrate this nicely. Granted, about the only thing these two have in common is the word "magazine": George is still so unsure of its identity it has little choice but to put someone like John Travolta on the cover, and the Atlantic, elder statesman of letters that it is, has a weakness for eggheads, a la this month's Edward O. Wilson.

But in each case, the stories are predictable. Travolta as the Clinton character in the film version of Joe Klein's "Primary Colors," George tells us, is as seductive as the prez himself (duh). Wilson waxes abstractly, interminably, about forms of knowledge that few people outside Harvard's gates will care about.

Keep flipping through the pages, though, and you arrive at something worth your time.

In George, Lynn Snowden takes us on a fascinating, funny and sad tour of Hollywood's $9 billion porn industry. Being there on the sets means Snowden captures it all ("Can you get into that bondage outfit?" a director asks a porn star at the end of a long day), and her article is also full of good solid reporting on the business side of Hollywood's sex movies. Whatever your feelings about the topic, there's something to be learned here.

The same immediacy propels the Atlantic's second-tier story on the ValuJet crash of two years ago, which opens with a fisherman's eyewitness account of the plane plunging into the Everglades. Talk about grabbing a reader by the throat. Writer William Langewiesche's energy never abates, even through pages of explanation about the many problems that brought down Flight 592 (the oxygen canisters were only the beginning).

With all due respect, few of us will be moved by Wilson's thoughts on "consilience"; most of us, having flown a few times ourselves or watched loved ones take to the skies, have given some thought to airline safety. Celebrity, however rarefied, is no substitute for accessibility.

For men

For a magazine that's just a year old, Icon looks mighty good. It's thoughtfully designed and intelligently written, which the founders apparently wanted to make sure readers understood from the get-go: Why else give their baby an off-putting subtitle like "thoughtstyle magazine for men"? Well, chalk it up to youth. Editor David Getson is only four years out of college.

All the more reason to be impressed by the profiles that define this magazine.

April's issue follows R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe around his hometown of Athens, Ga., where most of the time he's just another citizen. Dana Shapiro's portrait of this shy, funny-looking, enigmatic rock star feels authentic.

In stark counterpoint to Stipe's reserve are the "hey, look at me" personas of Evel Knievel and the Rev. Al Sharpton, both of whom are also profiled here. They're vivid, to say the least.

OK, I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Why don't women have a magazine like this?

Women with cameras

For now, at least we can appreciate some terrific pictures produced by women in American Photo for March/April. Contemporary photographers like Sally Mann, Cindy Sherman, and Annie Leibovitz are spotlighted alongside past masters, some of whom were working more than 100 years ago.

One portrait in particular is breathtaking: Julia Margaret Cameron's "Beatrice," which was made in 1866. This is beyond beautiful. It's as if da Vinci picked up a camera.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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