Circulation: McSweeney’s doesn’t do numbers
Date of Birth: 2006
Frequency: Quarterly
Price: $15.95
Natural Habitat: Lined up in chronological order on a Williamsburg hipster’s bookshelf

By Jake Tracer


Imagine, if you will, a taxonomic tree of publishing. The Magazine nests comfortably in the Periodical branch, sister of the Newspaper and cousin of the Journal and the Anthology. Now list the qualities that allow you to identify a magazine as a Magazine on the tree: timely articles, advertisements, less-than-daily publication, glossy covers, etc. The classification seems stable. Firmly rooted, you could say.

Enter Wholphin, the third and youngest magazine from McSweeney’s Press. Billing itself as a “DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films,” Wholphin contains no articles and no ads. Instead, each issue is literally a DVD, featuring movies that are timely only in the sense that they aren’t silent and weren’t made in the 1920s (except for one that stars Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff). Distributed quarterly and only a year old, Wholphin seems bent on twisting the publishing tree’s branches into a knot, mixing genres until a new one emerges with a blended name.

Since Wholphin promotes itself as a “DVD magazine,” it suggests a relationship between the two forms that allows them to combine despite their differences. It’s an idea that’s reflected in the publication’s title—a wholphin is the natural offspring of a false killer whale and a bottlenose dolphin—but not necessarily in its execution. The problem is one of expectations. Magazines are designed to arrive promptly on schedule, but Wholphin’s issues are consistently late.

The Fall 2006 issue wasn’t mailed until Winter 2007 because editor Brent Hoff desperately wanted to include a documentary about a Yemeni teenage girl who refused to wear her traditional Muslim veil. Hoff had trouble reaching the foreign filmmaker and held the issue until he did. According to its philosophy, Wholphin prioritizes content over publication schedule. “‘Magazine’ is probably the wrong word and not as accurate as it could be,” Hoff says of the title. “I just don’t know what the right word is because there is a different take on what’s important.”

Each issue of Wholphin is clearly designed to be saved, as DVDs are, not read and discarded like most magazines. Many of the films in the first three issues are collectors’ treasures, including Alexander Payne’s (Sideways) thesis film from graduate school, a thirteen-minute documentary about Al Gore made by Spike Jonze before the 2000 presidential election, and an equally short comedy starring Steve Carell. Each DVD case also contains liner notes of interviews with the filmmakers represented. They’re short and playful, frequently showing off the interviewer as much as the interviewee. Wholphin calls one film in its third issue “the second-most-blasphemous film ever made” and immediately challenges the filmmaker to name the first. “The Life of Brian,” he correctly responds, ultimately proving he’s hip enough to be in a McSweeney’s publication.

Since Dave Eggers founded McSweeney’s Press in 1998, it has always maintained an aura of liberal coolness. Being published under the McSweeney’s label is like getting invited to a concert by that kid in high school who knew about all the best bands before you did; Wholphin allows the publishing house to extend its stamp of approval to filmmakers.

Generally, Wholphin’s movies are well chosen and free of the pretentious tone that can accompany short films without narratives. But the fact that Hoff admits that he spends 75 percent of his time watching films and not overseeing the magazine’s production implies that Wholphin feels more at home among the evergreen branches of Anthologies than the deciduous cycle of Magazines. Hoff is more curator than editor, more arbiter of taste than shaper of content.

Wholphin’s website explains that its goal is to distribute the kinds of “unique and ponderable films designed to make you feel the way we felt when we learned that dolphins and whales sometimes, you know, do it.” Hoff explained what exactly that feeling was: “It’s a combination of horror, befuddlement, and glee. You’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing! That’s awesome!’”

But you don’t know what it is.


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