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 dot.com 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
* 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.