cultural illiteracy and the WSJ

Wsj There was a great story about the Hollywood producer Scott Rudin in the weekend Wall Street Journal.  Mr. Rudin is famous for treating his assistants with tyrannical disregard.  He goes through them at the clip of 1 every 6 weeks.* 

Mr. Rudin may be a monster but he is a well informed monster.  And the WSJ article touches on a favorite theme of this blog: the cultural illiteracy of the corporate world.  Mr. Rudin says he is "regularly shocked by the lack of cultural knowledge" of his staff. 

What’s odd is that the article itself manages to miss the single most illuminating comparison invited by the phone-throwing, insult-delivering, threat-shrieking Mr. Rudin.  Kelly and Marr fail to mention Swimming with sharks.   (All references below.)

If I may indulge in a little tantrum of my own, anyone who has been paying attention in the last 20 years knows that movies are the lingua franca of our culture.  (This especially annoys the intellectuals who devoted their educations to print, and love nothing more than literary references.  Yes, fine, I made one to Malamud on Friday.  I am deeply, deeply sorry.)  Referencing movies (or TV) is the single, most powerful, most dependable means of communicating in our culture. 

If there is a filmic reference to make, that is to say, you simply must make it.  The journalist who can refer to Swimming with sharks must refer to Swimming with sharks.  A circuit is opened and the reader leaves the WSJ article for the movie memory and comes back again illuminated.  Now we know the kind of man Scott Rudin is with a depth and nuance we can’t have had any other way.   (Mr. Rudin, by others’ movies, we shall know you.) 

This is the newspaper and the movie world working together.  Think of it as one of those crazy division of labor things that so surprised us during the explosion.  Print didn’t disappear, bricks and mortar retail didn’t disappear.  We just found several ways to combine them with the Internet.  We discovered the internet "plays well with others."

It is possible that Kelly and Marr haven’t heard of Swimming with sharks.  But if they are under 35, this is improbable.  There is one chilling possibility here: that an editor refused the Swimming with sharks comparison on the grounds that, "no one will get it."  Oh, dear, how very depressing.  This is, after all, the new WEEKEND edition of the Wall Street Journal, the very occasion when the WSJ might think about cultivating the reader and addresses this great deficit of the corporate mind set. 

The Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition is now two weeks old.  There is, so far, no evidence that it will address the issue of cultural literacy.  Instead, this weekend’s edition offers detailed advice on hiking.  Surely, this is the place where we might hope this august journal to create a column on the 44 films the well informed executive must know about.  (Create a NetFlix link, and these films can begin to roll into all those Connecticut households.)  This column should probably be written by one or both of those paragons at Entertainment Weekly (Schwartzbaum and Gleiberman).  Once this has run it’s course, there should be another column, this one about the 55 players in Hollywood who matter (e.g., "What John Cusak means to Hollywood").

When will Wall Street understand that cultural literacy isn’t a matter of ornament and it certainly isn’t a matter of cool, but that it is one of the bodies of knowledge on which managerial success depends?  I guess Wall Street will get when the Wall Street Journal does.  So when is this going to happen?


Huang, George.  1994. Swimming with sharks.  Keystone Pictures.  (stars Kevin Spacey, Frank Whaley and Benicio Del Toro.)

Kelly, Kate and Merissa Marr.  2005.  Bozz-Zilla!  Movie producer Scott Rudin may be the most feared boss in Hollywood.  But the young and ambitious line up for a chance to work for him.  Wall Street Journal.  September 24, 2005, pp. A1, A6, p. A6

Post script

* my estimate.  Assistants believe that Mr. Rudin has gone through 250 assistants in the last 5 years.  Mr. Rudin sets the figure at roughly half that. 

8 thoughts on “cultural illiteracy and the WSJ

  1. Peter McB.

    Whether due to a deep-rooted, trans-Atlantic conspiracy between the WSJ and Tony O’Reilly (ex-Heinz CEO and now newspaper magnate) or synchronicity or just a coincidence, last Saturday’s edition of the UK dewspaper, “The Independent”, gave away a free DVD of Swimming with Sharks.

  2. Peter McB.

    Grant —

    I believe we are at the cusp of a change in the artefactual focus of western culture from text to image. For 250 years, our entire culture and education system has been designed around text, its consumption (reading) and production (writing), with written words favoured in our culture over spoken, words favoured over images, documents favoured over performances, and persistent artefacts favoured over ephemera. (e.g., how many libraries of advertisements do you know of?)

    As you say, this change is due to the rise of movies and TV – and computer games – and the development of a literacy and numeracy of image in the young. (We even have no word, equivalent to “literacy” or “numeracy”, to describe an ability to parse and manipulate images.) One manifestation of this change (and a very good one, IMHO) is the adoption of graphical user interfaces and graphical programming languages at the expense of command-line interfaces (such as DOS) and languages in computing.

    I trace the start of the dominance of text in our culture to the mid-18th century, when Cambridge University switched from oral examinations to written ones for the Mathematics Tripos, a difficult exam which was compulsory for all graduates of Cambridge until 1909. This switch was undertaken despite fierce opposition from faculty who argued that written exams could not adequately test a student’s knowledge of math, since all students would receive the same questions. Russia, no slouch at producing great mathematicians, still tests university mathematics orally.

  3. conchis

    “It is possible that Kelly and Marr haven’t heard of Swimming with sharks. But if they are under 35, this is improbable.”

    Well, if they’re under 27-28, then they would have been too young to see it when it came out, and could easily have passed them by. Quick straw poll of my friends around this age group suggests that I’m far from the only one who had never heard of the movie.

    None of which is to deny the main point however…

  4. Grant

    Peter, hah, the English are stealing a march on the matter of cultural illiteracy. On the other hand, the film may appear to the British suspicion that American capitalism is a dangerous thing. Thanks, Grant

    Peter, This could be so, but my inclination is to think that the po mo model is an add-on one. New modalities, cultural or otherwise, don’t so much supplant the old as join it, giving us, in the process, a new multiplicity of option and strange new interactions to boot. But that’s just me. The Cambridge reference is a fascinating one. Thanks, Grant

    Conchis, thanks for the clear thinking and the polling. Apparently, I misunderstand this film’s influence. Best, Grant
    p.s., I wish there were some measure for this sort of thing. Imdbpro gives the box office numbers which were small. But this would be true probably for everything done by Jarmusch and Linklater. It would be great NetFlix or Blockbuster would release their rental numbers.

  5. Aldon Hynes

    Random associations: As I read your blog entry, I thought about two things: Given ‘that movies are the lingua franca of our culture’, or perhaps more correctly, images, I wondered if the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition has already jumped the shark that others are busy swimming with. I also observed that everything here is text, instead of images, so I thought I would end with:

    (I would have embedded it as an image, but that appears not to be allowed.)

    P.S. As I write this, I note an email from Syndic8:

    We’ve got a cool new feature on Syndic8. You can now upload a picture of your choice to your account, and it will be displayed in various places on the site.

  6. Michael Kelber

    The omission of a reference to Swimming with Sharks was particularly frustrating given (1) that the film’s main character is reportedly based on Scott Rudin; and (2) this line in the wsj piece:
    “The prize for surviving Mr. Rudin’s hazing is a first-hand education in being a Hollywood shark.”

    Maybe Mr. Rudin objected to the reference, and the writers tried to be subtle?

  7. Robert Nagle

    If you were a literary twit (like myself), you’d probably know better than to lament this lack of cultural literacy. We are all used to nobody knowing anything about a literary or cultural reference. Its just unrealistic to expect this sort of shared literacy anymore.

    I read books and watch films all the time, and often when I make references, they have to be oblique in order not to alienate the person who hasn’t read it. (BTW, I haven’t seen Swimming with Sharks!).

    When we start talking about cultural currency and reference points, we end up pointing to works by big media companies, big monstrous mediocrities that they are. Sorry to say that the shared cultural reference points are whatever Time-Warner or Viacom are pushing at the moment.

  8. steve

    I’m also not sure I’d put Swimming with the Sharks in an E.D. Hirsch-style cultural literacy reference manual. Nobody saw it–it was one of those inside-Hollywood pictures that critics love and the public ignores in droves. I didn’t see it, but I did see the review on Siskel and Ebert–does that count?

    I always thought part of plenitude was that common references of all sorts were breaking down as the culture fragmented. A guy like Dennis Miller used to make a good living by concatenating huge strings of references of which any particular auditor would know only a fraction. Part of the humor was laughing even when you didn’t get it because Miller’s delivery convinced you that if you had known the reference you’d have found it hilarious. I think we’re all in for a long spell of having to be Dennis Miller if we want to exploit references of any kind.

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