Two Cultures in One

Article excerpt

WRITING IN VANITY FAIR'S MARCH ISSUE, Peter Bart, the editor of variety, pronounces with all the authority of that august eminence that "the movie business is splitting into two distinct sectors, which have little if anything to do with each other." The language there immediately brought to my mind a controversy that blew up in Britain half a century ago this year- which makes this an opportune moment to revisit it. This was the matter of the "Two Cultures," brainchild of a Cambridge scientist called C. P. Snow who was also a popular middle-brow novelist, though his books have long since ceased to be read. He thought that the world of the arts and literature constituted one "culture," the world of science and technology another, and that the two were, much to his dismay, growing ever further apart. The subtext of his remarks was really one of self-aggrandizement, since he obviously saw himself as the bridge between the two cultures.

Though his idea was savagely attacked at the time, most notably by F. R. Leavis, you can still see its traces in the writings of Richard Dawkins and his school of uppity scientists who imagine that their knowledge of nature's mechanisms entitles them to pronounce authoritatively on theology and other subjects of which they have no knowledge. Like Snow, such people make the mistake of putting science and culture on all fours with each other when in fact they are opposites. Science is as certainly anti-culturalexcept, of course, about its own culture- as culture is certainly, even when not actively anti-scientific, the dead weight against which science is always pulling. Culture is backward looking, just as science is forward looking. Culture is history, the artifacts and stories that make up those "monuments of unaging intellect" that were the solace of Yeats's old age. There are no such monuments in science, which is progressive and anti-historical. All the monuments are aging, and most of them have been broken up and sold for scrap. The fundamental impulse of culture is to conserve the thought of the past; the fundamental impulse of science is to tear it down and rebuild it in corrected form.

But culture has changed since the days of Snow and Leavis, and the former's self-puffery may have made some small contribution to our present form of anti-cultural culture which, perhaps envying the scientists their reputation and their vulgar certainties, has joined them in wholeheartedly celebrating the progressivist principle. Increasingly, the traditional culture of art and literature has been drawn by popular entertainment into the realm of fantasy. Old ideas of love and honor that made literature and art go for centuries now must be transposed to outer space or some other fantasy realm- most recently in the alternative America of the 1980s represented in Watchmen- where they can do no harm, while the "real" world is reserved for political and therapeutic purposes.

Which brings us back to Mr. Bart's "two sectors" of the movie business. The first of these is what he calls "tent-pole pictures"- I guess because the money they generate just about manages to hold in place the flimsiest sort of roof over the heads of the whole entertainment industry. These are the products of the major studios whose steady stream of movies pitched at the sensibility and intellect of early teens and based on comic books or video games, plus the merchandising rights thereto, allows them occasionally to spend $150 million on making a special effects-laden movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that no one wants to see. "In the tent-pole business, the concept is the star," says Mr. Bart- which is doubtless true so long as you stipulate that it is one star that can rarely if ever open a movie. Even Snakes on a Plane (2006), whose sky-high concept was contained in its title, only just about made back its production costs of $35 million in domestic box office.

The other sector is the bargain-basement "arthouse business"- though "art" doesn't imply actual artistry. …