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Neiman Marcus recently unveiled the 88th edition of its annual Christmas Book. The pages contain many artfully photographed objects and experiences, but their fantasy is all in the price tag attached – there's no fully realized lifestyle on view.

No, for that sort of fantasy, it's another retailer's catalogue that delivers the goods, unsolicited. It is the shrink-wrapped thud heard around the country – nearly 13 pounds of Restoration Hardware catalogue, delivered unceremoniously and more unwelcome than even the hefty, anachronistic Yellow Pages directory, to households across Canada and the U.S.

"I could barely carry it up the stairs," artist Dana Berman Duff says of the Restoration Hardware set that she received at home – and was the inspiration for Catalogue, a short, silent 16-millimetre film screened in the recent Toronto International Film Festival's Wavelengths program.

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In some screenings, Berman Duff says, audiences have audibly gasped when, after a series of lingering images of broadloom carpeting, chandeliers and benches, ad copy appears in a photograph of pooling velvet curtains. Despite the film's name, she explains, viewers didn't realize the images were flat pages of a catalogue.

"The shots last as long as my gaze," the sculptor and filmmaker explains from her home in Los Angeles, where she also teaches at the Otis College of Art and Design. "It's like it's me looking at the page. It's less a structural film than a documentary."

Even when a catalogue isn't lavish enough to evoke an alternate reality (see: IKEA planet), it can activate something beyond SKU codes. Such is the case with J. Peterman's regularly mailed dispatches, which, nearly 30 years since the company was founded, still boast hand-drawn illustrations and the copywriting voice of a story-spinning shaggy-dog romantic vagabond.

The Ohio-based company is a purveyor of well-made, functional garments and accessories, even if they're not all that exciting (and, yes, the founder is the same one spoofed by John O'Hurley's character in Seinfeld). The text, however, makes its catalogue a winsome and bizarrely entertaining read, each simple item seemingly more quintessential than the last.

"No designer ever stepped forward to take credit for it," reads the sell copy for a sporty, striped vintage-style men's sweater in the latest edition of what the company calls not a catalogue but its Owner's Manual (No. 121 in an ongoing series). "Nobody even knows exactly when it first appeared. It's as if the players at Notre Dame, say, walked into the locker room one day some time in the 1930s and found a pile of them on the cement floor, smelling of overuse, and each man instinctively picked out one that more or less fit, and never gave it a second thought. Football is an evolutionary sport." Ridiculous, maybe – but no more than the Anthropologie catalogue and its grand gloomy rooms of peeling wallpaper and empty fauteuils.

By contrast, online iterations are up to date on stock levels and show different views, close-ups and item details – but no story. Unlike the fully realized pretend world of Restoration Hardware, "which is what prompted me to make the movie, they had already made the film sets," says Berman Duff. "They just needed the film!"

She likens the difference between paper and online catalogues to that between a recipe found online and one in a physical cookbook adjacent to a photograph. "I wouldn't cook anything I didn't have a picture of," she says, "because I want to know what it's going to look like in my life, on my table."

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Indeed, there is a forthrightness, an honesty to catalogues that are absent in other media. Unlike, say, lifestyle magazines, where product spreads speak only in positive superlatives, selling stuff in the guise of not selling stuff, catalogues have a purity to their intention – they want to sell product to a consumer who hopefully won't return it.

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