Discover more from Kvetch
Apocalypto and In Praise of the Zealot
Plus: Meadow Soprano vs Hillary Clinton, Neom, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth, Nissam Black, Wikipedia’s Kafkaesque entropy, Geothermal, Betadine, and F45
In this Kvetch:
Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s genius
Parshat Pinchas: In Praise of the Zealot
Meadow Soprano vs Hillary Clinton
NEOM - BASED CITY
Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth and feminisation
Nissam Black, haredi brother
Wikipedia’s Kafkaesque entropy
Betadine + RAC: a monopoly and biotech bonanza
F45 blows up
In my first Kvetch, I noticed a native American cultural bubble in the early 1990s.
I considered mentioning the dry years that followed were punctuated by perhaps the greatest film centred around native Americans in North America: Apocalypto. But it felt like cheating. Sure it’s technically north American but…. Mexico? (Don’t let my Mexican wife read that). And just… the vibe. It doesn’t belong in the same category as Pocahontas.
Imagine being a director at the time when Mel Gibson, the guy from Bird on a Wire, comes along and makes this masterpiece. The racist anti-Semitic guy literally makes the entire film in a Mayan language. It’s almost too much.
The single greatest Native American film made memory-holed for the sins of its maker. Critics miss the point when they read a “saviour” message into the ending, where the natives come upon Spanish ships, signifying the beginning of a new era of colonisation. The film’s core message is much more interesting, albeit still subversive: it doesn’t matter whether you are conquered by natives or foreigners, you and your wife and children bleed the same.1 When Cortez and the Spaniards look upon the native men on the beach, they are not looking upon some homogenous, idyllic people, but rather representatives of diverse, complicated, factional peoples. Some monstrous, some persecuted, some warring, others peaceful. All fighting through the complicated thicket of survival and human affairs. As anywhere you find man.
And how lovingly Gibson treats the film’s subjects.
Opening scenes of a band of men hunting, taunting, pranking each other. Loving their wives, harassed by mothers-in-law, led by fathers and elders and wrestling their children. What more can a man want? (Spicey take to unpick another day: not obvious we live a more fulfilled lifestyle today, elevated levels of infant mortality aside.)
On rewatching today, the idyllic scenes in the village also hit different as a parent. Easy to believe the universality of the dad mode - wrestling your child, pretending to eat him, playing the scary monster where children run before you with raucus laughter and feigned terror.
Humour was the right wedge to display this paradise: the guttural laughs at sexual jokes and friendly denigration and pranks rather than some sombre or mystical self-seriousness. Ordinary concerns of ordinary people.
Even the villains are charismatic. The silent king and his queen presiding over the human sacrifices are magnificent. The very human, political, manipulative undercurrents are palpable - it’s exactly as cynical as you’d expect, all with barely a word.
As murderous as they are, the villainous warriors show brotherhood and loyalty and paternal love. For this reason, I thought the scene where the ridiculously handsome villain warrior chief stabs his follower for a small tactical disagreement was a mistake: it didn’t feel real. It didn’t make sense. It was a Darth Vader move from another galaxy.
Just wild that first time actors did this.
Why has it taken Mel Gibson to recruit a 100% Mayan cast to create this ferocious story? Is it some muscle he built filming The Passion of the Christ in Aramaic?
And why no one else since?
Where is the story of Genghis Khan in the original Mongolian? I want to see and hear orders issued across the horde over vast distances via song, or Yamnaya warriors on their chariots ravaging Western Europe in whatever we’ve pieced together of their Indo-European language. Or fine, stay in North America: give me the rise and fall of the Comanche empire.
Beside Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood are there better examples of actors turned directors? Are there any left wing examples? Is Woody Allen left wing?
2. In Praise of the Zealot
Last week’s Parshat Pinchas conveys a a strange, violent story.
A group of Israelites are lured into orgies and idolotary by the Midianites. The idolotry is mixed in with a particularly odious kind, of a… defecatory nature.
The Lord commands Moses to hang the Israelite leaders. They are judged and hanged (per Rashi’s commentary).
Then a prince of Simeon takes a Midianite woman before the congress and “co-habitates” with her.
Pinchas, our protagonist, picks up a spear, goes into their tent, and spears them both to death.
Upon their death a plague amongst the people ceased. God’s wrath is tempered and a peace settles. For his deed Pinchas and his descendents are elevated to Kohanim: holy priests.
This is strange story.
There is much debate about it in the Talmud.
The tribe of Simeon demands Pinchas be punished for his deed.
The prince is not judged before a Sanhedrin, a Jewish court. Sandhedrins are famously loathe to exact the death penalty: a Sanhedrin that imposes the death penalty once in 70 years is regarded as a bloodthirsty Sanhedrin.
One read of this story, and there are many, is the blessing of the zealot.
We become accustomed to all sorts of foul norms. We are minnows amongst the waves of global fads. Often it is easier to look away. It is convenient to not raise a fuss.
Even the righteous merely abstained from the worship of the Golden Calf, and for this the Israelites were punished for generations to come.
The tribe of Simeon here acclimatised to beastly acts. It takes not much to boil the frog.
One lesson from the story is that sometimes we need a Pinchas to pick up the spear and pierce the mist around us. To unveil our eyes of newly acquired tolerance for evil. Make us hop out of the boiling water.
Pinchas is not a sympathetic character. We do not like the loud messenger who calls us out on our behaviour. We do not like the zealot who sees our hypocracy and names it. We are affronted by his boldness. He lives outside the mob. He will not go along with us. He will spear the Israelite Prince and the Midianite Princess to our shock and horror.
Yet sometimes we need to be Pinchas. Or have a Pinchas near us to see and to act.
The trouble is, it’s hard to know whether you’re a righteous zealot or whether you’re a nutter, ahead of time. In the story, Pinchas is elevated. Maybe there is a version of the story where God is angry that he acted so harshly beyond God’s commandment.
Sometimes the righteousness of the act is only known with the benefit of hindsight. The future determines the past.
History will tell, so note who tells the history.
As Stalin said, it’s not the votes that count but who counts the votes.
3. Meadow Soprano vs Hillary Clinton
I’ve slowly been re-watching The Sopranos. It’s such a dense, rich world it remains endlessly rewarding on rewatch.
I’ve found I’m watching it with new eyes. Older eyes. A father’s eyes. You feel Tony’s burdens more. You share his consternation: what is a man? What do I want for my kids? For my family? For myself?
When I first watched Sopranos I was a young teenager. And boy did I have time for Meadow Soprano. Entourage had a whole bit about Meadow being smoking hot and going out with Turtle. Of course, she was hot by then. But those guys would have grown up with the same awe.
Rewatching now, all I see in Meadow Soprano is an awkward young girl. Makes me feel old.
But one thing didn’t change: Hillary Clinton.
This scene was released over 20 years ago. The ladies discuss Clinton’s public humiliation. One wife kicks off with “I can’t stand that woman!”
Meadow Soprano changed.
Tony Soprano changed.
For Hillary Clinton, nothing changes.
4. NEOM - BASED CITY
Great piece on a Saudi thought bubble that’s fed a lot of consultants.
This sounds like a lot of bankers I know:
“If I had to put a bottom line for all the work that I did in this era, it was presentations and PowerPoints that went into the garbage the next week,” says a former manager who worked on Silver Beach. “It was the least productive part of my whole life in terms of doing real things and the most productive in terms of the money I got.”
And I don’t care what people say I love The Line, and think dictators should be building more awesome things (as unlikely as it is it’s ever built…)
5. Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth and feminisation
Author Joyce Carol Oates says what you’re not allowed to say, in the general Prohibition on Noticing:
“(a friend who is a literary agent told me that he cannot even get editors to read first novels by young white male writers, no matter how good; they are just not interested. this is heartbreaking for writers who may, in fact, be brilliant, & critical of their own "privilege.")”
Even with the appropriate disclaimers (they’re even critical of their own privilege!), she was hounded.
The only thing worse than doing what Stalin forbade is saying that Stalin forbade it.
I know it. You know it. They know it. But to say it out loud is somehow ghastly.
Anyway, Joyce Carol Oates released this interiew she did with Philip Roth from 1974.
“My public reputation sometimes accompanies me now into the classroom, but usually after the first few weeks, when the students have observed that I have neither exposed myself or set up a stall and attempted to interest them in purchasing my latest book, whatever anxieties or illusions about me they may have had, begin to recede, and I am largely allowed to be a literature professor instead of Famous.”
What’s striking about this comment from Roth is that it seems unimaginable today in Australia or the US for a novel or literary author to stir such controversy. Is it simply that no one reads, that we are desensitised to obscenity, or the culture is just dominated by other forms like Netflix?
On politics eating everything
“that one might have an analytical, rather than a political purpose, is invariably beyond the comprehension of those who protect us Americans against subversive conspiracies.”3
In 2000, Harold Bloom in How to Read and Why warned against “campus Puritans” and the “pious platitudes, the peculiar vocabulary” of “such covens as “gender and sexuality” and “multiculturalism”” that universities have empowered.
To him injecting activism into literature only hampered appreciation and the truth seeking mission of art.
A straight line from 1974 to 2000 to today.
Then there is this:
“Sherwood Anderson wrote “The Man Who Turned Into a Woman,” one of the most beautifully sensuous stories I've ever read, where the boy at one point sees himself in a barroom mirror as a girl.... Anyway, it wasn't me who wrote about such a sexual transformation, unless you're thinking of My Life as a Man, where the hero puts on his wife's undergarments one day, but just, as it were, to take a sex break.”
Just a transgressive conversation about literary fiction and fetishes that would be impossible to discuss today except in the context of the New Ideology.
6. Nissam Black, haredi brother
African American rapper converts to Orthodox Judaism and… it’s a vibe.
Love this modern day Hannukah miracle thrown in:
“While praying over the situation in his study, Black discovered that a long-broken microphone had begun working again, and took this as a sign to return to music.”
While on the subject of vibes, there was a period of 6 months last year where I was constantly jamming to this with my kids. These Yemenite Jewesses definitely have a vibe. And the Georgian equivalent. Yemenite daughters and Georgian wives.
Reminder: Yemenite Jews are unique among Sephardim for being genetically indistinguishable from Arabs. Razib explains:
“These Yemeni Jews likely date to the conversion of the Himyarite kingdom of southern Arabia in the fifth century AD. For several centuries, much of the elite of Yemen adhered to the Jewish faith and was caught up in a religious war with Christian Ethiopia. These Jewish Yemenis did not descend from Levantine migrants but were converted from the local pagan population. The Ethiopians eventually overthrew the Jewish kingdom, but their hegemony was short-lived, quickly replaced by rule under the Prophet Muhammad, and the gradual conversion of the Yemenites to Islam. But there always remained a Jewish minority, restricted to modest professional options as urban artisans. Unlike the majority Muslim population, the Yemenite Jews did not mix with the African slaves and may offer a genetic snapshot of the region’s heritage in antiquity.
See my conversation with Razib on the subject here.
7. Wikipedia’s Kafkaesque entropy
Wikipedia is a wonderful example of a beloved, open, functioning institution that’s actually hyper-concentrated, factional and seems increasingly dysfunctional. It’s an allegory for much in the world.
I read this piece by Ted Gioia as a story about how all institutions suffer from Kafkaesque entropy: without constant force they decay into political fiefdoms.
Kafka was not writing about an anomalous moment of warped justice but a darkness at the heart of the human condition.
“Websites that were launched with the goal of serving users have gradually turned into petty fiefdoms. Operations that were once open-sourced and community minded, become inside jobs and close-minded. There’s no accountability to anyone outside the system, and the appeal process is deliberately made opaque and unresponsive to complaints.”
8. Geothermal feast
9. Iodine + RAC: a monopoly and biotech bonanza
How did Betadine corner the iodine market in Australia? How was a pure commodity like iodine dominated by a single brand? Is this one of those things like Japanese zips? Do the advantages of scale and low margins prevent anyone else from bothering with the upfront capital investment? Or maybe a regulatory barrier.
One commenter posted this link where Betadine is #5 most trusted brand in Australia (in 2019)! Dettol being #1 (pre-COVID) shows something is funny with the list - it leans heavily towards healthcare brands. In a narrow sense of “trust” that’s unsurprising - you’d expect healthcare brands to be disproportionately invested in being trusted.
I had a quick Google and I came across this: apparently Betadine is an Australian “invention” - effectively repurposed hospital antiseptic.
By coincidence, I saw the inventor also founded Race Oncology (ASX: RAC). That’s an interesting story. Aside from it’s hopes for improving cancer treatment, Daniel Tillett (a friend) invested $561,000 at $0.066 per share in August 2019 (per ASX announcements), before joining the company executive and Board. He’s acquired more since. It hit a high of ~$3.80 in 2021 and is currently trading at $2.15. The one-man-band biotech activist investor gig can pay.
10.…F45 blows up
Which is annoying because I wrote last week how it specifically was in a neat segment of the gym market. Yes its share price was already tanking, no I can’t be bothered even looking into why it’s blowing up. If I had to guess it would be infinite competition in the space, which I also mentioned last week. The broader point still holds that premium, high frequency gym products reduce the implied subsidy to the lower end gym sector.
When I was in (northern) India everyone I met seemed to have a favourite king. Whether it was a Moghul or Hindu king depended on whether you asked a Muslim or Hindu. From their perspective, India was ruled by consecutive regimes: the Hindus, the Moghuls, the British. When you ask yourself what legitimacy the Moghuls had at their time of conquest, every land and regime in the world looks altogether different.
Perhaps the British were worse in kind: their plunder went offshore and they didn’t intermarry and integrate locally. But still the point stands. It made a deep impression on me.
Of course, not just US publishing. It’s no secret to anyone in the industry that in Australian investment banking and private equity recruiters are always on the look out for female candidates and many firms seek to recruit exclusively females. Been that way for my entire career at least.
I once had a founder of a private equity firm tell me he felt sorry for young guys trying to break into the industry - odds just stacked against them these days. He of course then proceeded to another Women’s Day marketing event or whatever.
This is of course all excellent, and as God intended.
This might be even more pronounced in lega court rulings, where the underlying application of law is totally absent and irrelevant in the public discourse on a legal decision. Only outcomes and narratives.