Pick of the Day: Vanity Fair hits creationism museum
I have to confess from the start that, as a native Kentuckian who grew up in Louisville, I get a little touchy and defensive whenever I read stories about the Bluegrass state by glib reporters from flashy national news organizations. Each year, right around early May, a Kentuckian can count on at least one story focusing on the exotic Derby hats worn by well-heeled ladies at Churchill Downs; but you never know when other, slightly ironic, anthropological features will pop up in the press.
And so, along comes Vanity Fair to write about Kentucky's Creation Museum in its February edition. To make the story supposedly more inventive, writer A.A. Gill brings along actor Paul Bettany, who plays Charles Darwin in an upcoming film, to snap photos of the exhibits.
Let me be clear. I am not a creationist. But I am also not a fan of these thinly reported takes trying to paint religious people as hayseeds. I also felt like Bettany's only reason to shoot pictures was that Vanity Fair, of course, was promoting his film. Worse, the reporter seemed uncomfortable interviewing the visitors at the museum and getting down their names, so he needed someone else in the media industry to tag along.
The lead of his story begins with him challenging some unnamed clerk at a glasses shop and challenging her about who invented human beings. Which store? Which clerk? Why is this reporter beginning the story at something akin to a LensCrafters and picking a fight?
Gill enjoys bragging that he's brought along a movie star, an actor who starred in a film about Wimbledon, so he consumes more space at the top of his story for stereotypes: "Here in Nowheresville, Kentucky, tennis is considered a game for Europeans and other sexual deviants. I can’t imagine what they think of English actors." So witty, that Vanity Fair.
On he goes into the museum. I bring this story to your attention because it's an example of an interesting story that could have been so much more compelling, had the reporter tried interviewing real people there. I've never been to the museum, and I don't know much about who financed it, but the reporter doesn't seem to care to provide those basic details. He says it cost $27 million, but who paid that?
Give the story credit for Bettany's stark photo slide show of the exhibits showing eerie looking mannequins of Adam and Eve; an angry poster in the museum proclaiming that "SCRIPTURE IN AN ABANDONED CULTURE LEADS TO...RELATIVE MORALITY, HOPELESSNESS, AND MEANINGLESS;" and an elegant black-and-white shot outside showing the museum's modern design with huge wall windows. I felt like the photos, more than the actual story, gave me a sense of the museum. (I grimaced at one Bettany photo showing only a security officer's slight paunch and his left hand affixed to his firearm.)
Some of Gill's piece is funny, like this part:
It all gets good when the leading man arrives. Adam comes on looking like the Hispanic bass player for a Janis Joplin backup band, with a lot of hair and a tan. He looks a bit stoned. As well he might be, because he’s all on his own in Eden. Nothing can do him any harm, and he’s got the whole pharmacopoeia at arm’s reach. And then you get to Eve, a demure, foxy little girl who could be Juliet in a Guatemalan school play.
In the end, though, Vanity Fair took the cliched route, pointing a huge rifle inside a small bowl full of wriggling fish. The reporter relied on snark rather than a more deeply reported exploration of the museum and, more important, of the lives and mindsets of visitors there.
Of course, this isn't the first time Kentucky has enjoyed these sort of portraits. My favorite of all time was when the New York Times wrote a story in the late 1990s about our love of squirrel brains.
(And, in the interest of fairness, even my good friend Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post couldn't resist a pretty funny story earlier this month about Kentucky Fried Chicken getting sued by its franchise owners because of the company's push to go grilled and healthier, rather than sticking to the reliably money-making fried chicken. My favorite line in her story? "The furor over the fowl began in 2008..."
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