I may have been mostly sitting on my butt lately (it’s the vertigo), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been mentally active (I hate double negatives, don’t you?)! I’ve been reading books and watching movies, and here are my brief opinions of
a bunch two of them.
The Current War
This larger-than-life story pits two 19th Century titans of industry against each other AND the forces of nature! It has the added feature of being mostly true.
On the one hand, all-American inventor Thomas Edison, whose sweatshop-cum-laboratory has given the world the wonders of the victrola and many other inventions, with direct current (DC), which usually won’t kill you but can’t be transmitted very far. Edison’s solution: what do people living in the country need electricity for, anyway?
George Westinghouse, having invented the air brake for railroads and thus made his million, sees the potential in this mysterious stuff, electricity. When his senior researcher is killed in a predictably avoidable accident, Westinghouse recruits the weird Serbian Nikola Tesla, who has been digging ditches since being fired by Edison’s lab for advocating an alternative to DC, the vastly more transmittable but also more dangerous alternating current (AC). There’s also the little matter of the $50,000 bonus Edison promised Tesla and then welched on, saying “You don’t understand the American sense of humor.”
Thus is engaged the The Current War, which lasted from about 1890-1904. Edison demonstrates the dangers of AC by electrocuting an incredible number of stray and unwanted animals, only the first of which is shown, fortunately, and off-screen. Tesla responds by letting millions of volts of AC cacade over his body at the 1893 Chicago Exposition with no ill results.
Overall, the film is gorgeously filmed and very, very believably acted by all those involved. Female characters, mostly in the form of the two inventors’ wives, are represented. It was reportedly a troubled production, with portions re-shot after a test screening at a film festival, but if so, the result doesn’t show on the screen. (Thanks, Martin Scorsese, who as a co-producer insisted on the right of the final cut!)
We take electricity and the light, warmth and power it gives us for granted. This film reminds us that we shouldn’t, that it was the work of hard-nosed businessmen that brought those wonders to us. I wish all historical films were this good!
Peter Fisher’s Odyssey: Marine Mammal Warfare
a novel by Michael Greenwood
In 1978, when I briefly worked for newspaper heiress Margaret Scripps Buzzelli, she flew me to Moorhead, Minnesota, where I interviewed a very withdrawn and forlorn Michael Greenwood. He was a civilian scientist who’d just served as a source for the influential 1977 PENTHOUSE article “The Pentagon’s Deadly Pets,” which pretty much blew the whistle on the U.S. Navy’s use of dolphins at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. (Note: I can’t find the original article on the Web. It should be. I think I have a copy in my files, I’ll OCR it and put it up here.)
Of course Greenwood, who shows remorse for his dolphin deeds similar to Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry, says the dolphins at Cam Ranh were weaponized with syringes that injected enemy swimmers trying to mine the U.S. warships with compressed air, causing an instant and fatal embolism. The U.S. Navy has said it never weaponized dolphins, finding them to be to unreliable in targeting as a weapons platform, and anyway a live enemy swimmer is more valuable than a dead one, because he can give you intelligence.
I spent a couple of days interviewing Greenwood, smoking dope to control the weirdness of what I was hearing while he consumed an inhuman amount of cheap beer. He talked about dolphins and more, about distant communication with submerged submarines using ultra-low frequencies and about being able to send them a self-destruct signal should they fall into enemy hands. And about a tell-all book he hoped to write on the subject, then tentatively titled The Dolphin Machine.
It was a very heavy interview. I still have the tapes, and I have tried to listen to them to edit them into something I can put on line. But Greenwood’s elliptical, looping, self-reflexive way of speaking defeats me every time. He is incomprehensible and hypnotic, and that’s a bad combination. I went home feeling depressed.
So now we have the promised novel, only it’s titled Peter Fisher’s Odyssey: Marine Mammal Warfare. I think it may take the cake for longest gestation time for a literary work, even beating my own Wet Goddess, which took 37 years to finish, or 24, if you don’t count the 13 years I put it aside because I was emotionally too close to the story. For the record, I think the earlier title, and probably the earlier draft, were better.
Greenwood has written a novel just like he talks — elliptical, looping, self-referential — and very confusing to read. I have gotten 81 pages into it, and I can’t bring myself to pick it up again. It’s sad, because THIS IS THE ONLY NOVEL, AND PROBABLY THE ONLY WORK OF ANY KIND, ON THE OBSCURE SUBJECT OF MARINE MAMMAL WARFARE!
But here’s what I’ve been able to glean so far: The title character is leader of a Navy S.E.A.L. team, The Hounds of Hell, doing a dirty mission in Vietnam. Then he comes home, goes to college, and asks his professor a bunch of obvious, didactic questions like “What is a scientist, Max?” Cut to Peter, now a novice professor of psychology, lecturing his first class… and he flashes back to the time years ago when he, several human collaborators, a bunch of dolphins and a couple of pilot whales, infiltrated a Chinese harbor and fucked-up a bunch of Chinese whales.
At least, that’s what I think is going to happen. Peter Fisher finishes teaching the class before he finishes the flashback, and then… he dies. This is revealed on page 84. I’m sure that his story continues somehow, because the book goes on for a total of 666 pages. All of them as self-referential as an actor speaking to the camera.
There’s an old dictum in writing fiction, or non-fiction for that matter: Don’t tell the reader what you want them to know, show them. Greenwood never seems to get this, and thus we are subjected to a novel that reads somewhat like a corporate board meeting: Greenwood clues us in on what he’s going to tell us; then he tells us; the he explains what he just told us. It’s insane and boring as shit to read, but I really want to finish the book because I know Greenwood personally (albeit superficially), I can tell he went through something traumatic with dolphins, and I admire what he was able to do and learn about them. He’s also responsible for the release of one, a female Tursiops named Dolly Phynne, from the Navy’s Key West facility, without orders to do so. For which, I gather, he got in trouble. But Dolly Phynne is a another story.
(Greenwood also tells an incredibly funny and poignant story about a dolphin’s blunt response to open-ocean work, but that too is another story.)
Well, this book has a bunch of 5 star ratings on Amazon, so I guess somebody must like it. But now that I’ve put it down, I can’t pick it up again. You try.
(More reviews to follow in a separate story)