The Red Turtle

Spoiler alert!

This film was such a disappointment! I had high hopes for it, the trailer was gorgeous, and it had Studio Ghibli attached – so what could go wrong?

I should say, first, that the art work is lovely throughout; the detail and realism of the island backgrounds and wildlife are worthy of Studio Ghibli, or other Japanese animation like the films of Mamoru Hosoda. The human characters bear no resemblance to saucer-eyed anime characters, and did seem more ‘French’ to me, reminding me of artists like Moebius (I may simply have been pre-biased by knowing it was a French co-production, or this may just be due to the fact that it does not look like anime or Disney). The sound effects of the natural world, as well as the soundtrack, are also superb.

The story is of a shipwrecked man stranded on a deserted island. After exploring the island, he builds a raft from bamboo and attempts an escape. Some invisible force destroys the raft a short distance from the island, and the same thing happens when he builds a second, bigger raft. A third, still bigger raft is also destroyed, but this time the giant red turtle of the title is there, and the man assumes it is her attacking him and his raft, although she leaves him alone when he is in the water.

After the third attempt, the man sees the red turtle coming up onto the beach. In a fit of rage, he smashes her over the head with a bamboo pole, turns her onto her back, jumps on her, then leaves her to die in the sun.

Later, feeling guilty, he tries to revive her by pouring seawater over her head, and also tries and fails to right her. It doesn’t work and she appears to die, her shell splitting open.

Then, she turns into a woman, unconscious, and still lying inside the split shell. The man feeds her fresh water, and builds a shelter over her. After a brief rain storm she becomes conscious, and runs into the shallow water near the beach.

The man leaves her his shirt and walks away into the bamboo forest, when he returns to the beach, he sees the woman in the water, walking away from the beach, pushing the floating turtle shell in front of her. When she reaches deeper water, she pushes the shell off out to sea and returns to the beach.

The man responds by doing the same with the forth raft he had started to build. Then they sit on a sand bank, and the woman starts breaking open mussel shells, feeding them both. The man has a flashback to smashing her over the head and shudders, the women now appears unafraid of the man.

Then they walk from the beach into a meadow on the island, and both float up into the air together – a PG metaphor for sex, as we then skip to years later, when they have a toddler son.

The rest of the story covers the boy’s growth into manhood; he swims out to sea with other giant turtles (they are all green, but he has red hair like his mother), and eventually swims off with them for good. There is also a tsunami that devastates the island before he leaves.

After the son leaves, the man and women stay on the island together until they are old and grey, then the man dies in his sleep, and the woman turns back into a turtle and heads back out to sea.

The problem I had with the film while watching it, is that it looks like the man is rewarded for his act of cruel violence by being given a compliant, silent, wife. I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt while watching, hoping there would be something later in the story to mitigate it, but I don’t think there was.

There is no talking in the film, and we never see the story from the woman’s perspective (we see the man’s dreams and hallucinations while he is alone on the island, as well as his flashback). There are lots of fairy tales where people are released from an enchantment trapping them in animal form, or stories like The Little Mermaid, where a magical/mythical creature chooses to be transformed into human form (and these transformations are often violent, or come at a cost), but it is never clear which is the case for The Red Turtle, and there is no way the man knew in advance that this is what would happen, it is obviously a complete surprise to him.

It is not clear what force is keeping the man on the island – is the red turtle supposed to represent the spirit of the island itself? But the island, when it is devastated by the tsunami, is shown to be a normal island, at the mercy of the elements. Was she in love with him from the start? But we only see them ‘meet’ right before he attacks her, they build no relationship with her as the turtle – the brief moment when they first see each other is actually quite moving, it feels like two sentient creatures making first contact, but that is then spoilt by the later violence.

I can see what the story is trying to do, it is aiming for mythic resonance, but I don’t think it achieves it. As a whole, the story itself is best at the beginning, when the man is first washed up on the island, as he explores his new environment (and as an aside, ‘mild peril’ my arse! The moment when he is trapped in a deep-sided pool and forced to swim underwater through a very narrow tunnel to escape terrified me!). The details of this first half build the character of the man, he dreams of a bamboo bridge out to sea that he flies along, and hallucinates a chamber orchestra. There is humour to his Sisyphean raft building, and there are cute crabs for comic relief.

The rest of the story, covering decades, feels sparse by comparison, and the woman never really has a character at all. We only see her swimming once as a human, she doesn’t even go into the sea when her toddler son falls into the same pool that his father fell into before. There is one moment, when the man draws pictures in the sand to show the son that there is a whole world beyond the island, and she adds a drawing of a turtle, but it is not clear if this means she misses her people, or if she is just telling her son that there is that option for him as well.

So, I was disappointed, because the need for the violence of the transformation is never explained, and there is not enough character development to see why the woman wants to stay with him anyway. I worry about the message it portrays, that (male) violence (against a woman) is an acceptable prelude to romantic love and devotion.

“Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance”

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

Jill Lepore, A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction, in The New Yorker

“A Lovely Art”

The only means I have to stop ignorant snobs from behaving towards genre fiction with snobbish ignorance is to not reinforce their ignorance and snobbery by lying and saying that when I write SF it isn’t SF, but to tell them more or less patiently for forty or fifty years that they are wrong to exclude SF and fantasy from literature, and proving my argument by writing well.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in the interview “A Lovely Art”, published in The Wild Girls, from PM Press.

Crapumenta!

“There’s anger because they haven’t taken circumstance into account,” says Nadja Argyropoulou, a curator in Athens. “Their theory is beautiful, radical and timely, but they didn’t mingle or take the leap into the everyday or address the reality here. Circumstance is what humbles theory and makes art as important as real life.”

Very apropos my previous post, and it is a very beautiful sentiment (from this article on the German Documenta contemporary art event in Greece), but I still don’t know, the graffiti (from the same article), may be more appropriate:

Steve Rasnic Tem Interview in Interzone 269

Writer Steve Rasnic Tem is interviewed in issue 269 of the SF magazine Interzone, the below is an extract:

UBO is an exploration of the roots of violence. Why does this theme intrigue you? What are the benefits, to both you as a writer and to your readers, of exploring violence?

I hate violence, the way it warps and diminishes us. Violence against ourselves, against each other, and against the environment. It’s what disturbs me most about humanity. And we are all affected by it in one way or another. And yet it’s not something I’ve written that much about. In my short story work I generally focus on subtle, more ghostly effects (the major exception being my collection Ugly Behavior), and my novel Deadfall Hotel certainly reflects that. Violence occurs in my southern gothic/horror novel Blood Kin, as you might expect, but except for a rather horrible scene witnessed through a crack in the door it’s mostly off stage violence. With UBO I wanted to write a meditation on violence – my biggest fear – in all its forms. I wasn’t proposing to “solve” anything exactly – I’m a writer of fiction, not a social scientific genius – I just wanted to take the reader through an interesting journey where we could contemplate some of the dynamics involved.

As for the benefits of such an exploration, well, that’s always hard to say isn’t it, when we’re talking about a work of fiction? On one level you’re trying to entertain with an intriguing story. And certainly that’s enough. But especially as I get older with fewer books I’m going to be able to read, and fewer books I’m going to be able to write, I want a little more out of my fiction. Most of us would rather avoid violence. Most of us – myself included – live our lives in ways to keep violence away from ourselves and our loved ones. For myself I keep violent people out of my life – I want nothing to do with them.

The reason to confront violence – as with all unpleasant subjects – is that you can’t really successfully avoid it. Violence will touch you – in small ways for most of us, in profound ways for those of us who are unlucky. At some point you have to find a way to deal with it. Violence touched me when I was a child, and it touched the lives of my adopted children before I knew them – and we still have to deal with the shockwaves of those experiences. And it touches all of us when our governments are involved in violent activities.

Our society isn’t great at empowering people. We’re generally not that great at raising our children to feel empowered. People who feel they are helpless against change, who feel they are denied the positive drama of love and accomplishment, tend to turn toward the ready drama of violence – whether they commit it themselves or they commit it via a surrogate (games and entertainment are one such surrogate, but politics and government are also surrogates, as are our tendencies to destroy and exploit the environment). The first step toward preventing horrifying things in ourselves is learning to acknowledge them in ourselves and others.

Actors often speak of the stress they experience when taking on “difficult” roles. Is there a similar toll on you as a writer when you try to get inside the head of people like Himmler, Jack the Ripper, Stalin etc? How do you cope with that sort of pressure?

The writing of fiction is often very close to the art of acting. So there is a similar toll when you climb inside the heads of some of these characters. And when I really started working on this novel every day we had two small children at home. So I’d spend hours inside the heads of these awful people, and then I’d go play and read stories with my four and five year old. It was too much. After a while I couldn’t do it anymore and put the book aside. After I picked it up again within a few months our son Anthony died, and I put it aside again, this time for decades (although I was always thinking about it, working it out in my head). I think it’s no accident that I didn’t finish UBO until both kids and grandkids were out of the house.

As far as coping, I’m generally a positive, optimistic guy. That may sound like a contradiction for a horror writer, but that kind of balancing act is what keeps me sane. I tend to see the world through a filter of humour, and I devour comedy – movies, stand-up routines, humorous writing etc – it’s a rare day that I don’t laugh out loud at least once.

I really didn’t want to write/think about A Little Life any more, but reading this interview, it was so striking; Rasnic Tem is a genre writer, a horror writer, and his take on violence is so much more intelligent and insightful than Yanagihara, a supposedly ‘literary’ author, who tells us how fun it is to write evil characters, that she ‘inhabits darkness joyfully,’ and makes grandiose claims about her ‘duty’ to write about child rape and self-harm in explicit, titillating detail.

I had never heard of Rasnic Tem before reading this issue of Interzone, the review of UBO does sound interesting (it calls it ‘required reading’), but I am not sure if I want to read it – if I do, it may turn out that I don’t like it, or don’t feel its violence to be justified. Rasnic Tem’s short story in the same issue of Interzone ‘The Common Sea,’ which I did like, is a gentle tail of environmental collapse, which doesn’t give any real clues about what UBO will be like to read.

It is also interesting to note that, in his guest editorial, Rasnic Tem uses the opportunity to talk about the environment and climate change. Yanagihara, on the other hand, uses her much wider platform to disseminate her dubious ideology about mental health and suicide.

I have serious doubts about the value of art, about its ability to affect the world. This is not something I have just started thinking about, but global political events over the last few years have made these doubts stronger. Reading A Little Life, ‘award winning literature’, that was garbage on every level, makes me doubt art has any real value at all, if it can ever be anything other than entertainment, escapism.

The famous Kurt Vonnegut quote about the Vietnam War illustrates my thinking perfectly:

During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we’ve ever been in – and which we lost – every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.

“Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen”

Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.

[…] Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better.

Sometimes, young writer, you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean. Occasionally you know – deep in your gut – that it’s not good enough. Or you’ve been chasing the wrong story. Or you’ve been waiting for another moment of inspiration.

Often the true voice is not heard until long into the story. It might be a year of work, hundreds of pages, or even more. (One of the most liberating days of my writing life was when I threw 18 months of work away.) But something in you knows – it just knows – that everything you have written so far has just been preparation for what you are now about to write. You have finally found your north, your east, your west. No south, no going back.

So you have to throw it away.

From: Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann, extracted in the Guardian today