- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

Hefty magazines usually make their appearance on newsstands in fall or for the Christmas season, but this year, for some reason, you could break your arm lugging home the March issues of Vanity Fair, Vogue, W and Harper’s Bazaar.

Vanity Fair proudly boasts in its cover line: “Our Biggest Issue Ever,” and is it ever — 500 glossy pages’ worth. The issue also is the 13th Hollywood special, timed to appear with the Academy Awards.

Cleverly, Editor in Chief Graydon Carter has put together a visual and literary tour de force titled “Killers Kill, Dead Men Die,” a tribute to film noir of the 1940s and ‘50s illustrated with most of the leading contenders for this year’s Oscars and photographed by superglam photographer Annie Leibovitz. Distinguished cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond planned all the setups, giving the impression you’re looking at stills from all those black-and-white thrillers of yesteryear.

Handsome and inventive as the double-spread pictures are, you doubt that some of the subjects, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, for example, are going to want to frame their photographs for their living rooms. Very unkind lighting, to say the least. You can barely recognize Jack Nicholson in a ‘30s fedora.

In addition to the color spread, you also get a black-and-white series of photographs from such films as “Laura,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “This Gun for Hire,” and “The Big Heat” along with an essay on how the film-noir genre developed between the Great Depression and the start of the Cold War. Ann Douglas explains why “the noir’s poignant cynicism took hold and why it remains embedded in the national psyche today.”

There’s a lot more in those 500 pages than film noir and extravagant ads for costly garments. For instance, two top-flight investigative journalists, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, appear for the first time in Vanity Fair’s pages with an article on a powerful but little-known federal supplier that has 8,000 active contracts with the U.S. government and a work force of 44,000. Based in San Diego, the Science Applications International Corp. is, as the magazine puts it, “the brain to Halliburton’s brawn.” An intriguing, not to say disturbing, piece.

• • •

That worthy monthly Archaeology is all heated up over Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” contesting the film’s violence. In browsing through some of my reference books, however, I find there appears to be much evidence for Maya violence and cruelty of a nature Mr. Gibson couldn’t possibly have included, such as pulling stingray tails through the tongue and other tender body parts, all recorded in extant murals. Check out “The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Mayan Art” to get a real notion of just how bloody Maya rituals were.

Curiously, author David Friedel, who is identified as “dedicating his career to the Maya, both ancient and modern,” concentrates on the more noble qualities of the people, downplaying their brutal side. Of course, he also is identified as working with modern-day Maya “to promote responsible archaeological and ecological tourism.”

• • •

Vogue also is boasting of its “biggest spring issue ever,” beating out Vanity Fair by 130 pages. The fashion magazine has given its cover to Jennifer Hudson, nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for “Dreamgirls.” And yes, Annie Leibovitz also took the photograph of Miss Hudson glowing happily for the occasion.

• • •

The March Smithsonian is chockablock with highly readable material, and thank heaven one doesn’t have to keep turning page after page of glossy advertisements in bed. Author Francine Prose followed the trail of Caravaggio, the “criminally gifted 16th-century painter,” as she describes him, tracking the master-turned-murderer through Italy.

This splendid and engrossing article is illustrated by Andrea Pistolesi, whose photographs show not only the artist’s most celebrated works, but scenes from his life, as when Caravaggio walked 60 miles on scalding beaches and through mosquito-infested marshes to reach Porto Ercole, the port on the Tuscan coast where he collapsed and died at the age of 38.

Another engaging piece of history is brought to light in the same issue with “Catching Up With Old Slow Trot,” by Ernest B. Furgurson, who tells the tale of Gen. George Henry Thomas, a Virginian who became one of the Union’s most brilliant generals. He was considered a traitor to the Confederate cause; his two sisters denied they knew him and returned his letters unopened. In his youth, he taught his family’s 15 slaves to read and write even though teaching slaves was illegal in Virginia.

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