Lessons to be learned from The Red Tur­tle

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - PHILIP MARTIN

He’s drown­ing. In the ocean, toss­ing like a trou­bled con­science in the dark, name­less and anony­mous. Some­how he is de­liv­ered onto a white beach. Be­yond the gray rocks is a green for­est. He climbs a hill and dis­cov­ers him­self on an is­land.

He rests. He eats. He re­builds his strength. He lashes to­gether a raft from felled bam­boo. He means to es­cape. He floats out be­yond the break­ers.

Some­thing at­tacks his craft, de­stroys it. He barely makes it back to land. Rest. Re­build. Re­peat. It hap­pens again. Yet he per­sists.

The third time, he sees the mon­ster. It’s a sea tur­tle.

Ship­wrecked again, he makes it back to shore and sees the tur­tle crawl­ing onto the beach. In his fury, he runs down and beats the tur­tle with a stick. Then he pushes it onto its back and leaves it in the sun to die while he starts to build an­other raft.

Af­ter a while, he feels bad about the tur­tle, which was only fol­low­ing the im­per­a­tives of its in­stinct. He tries to turn it back over, but it’s too heavy. He tries to feed it a fish, but he dis­cov­ers it has died. He is sorry, and he sits up with the dead tur­tle.

That night, the tur­tle’s shell splits. And in the morn­ing a beau­ti­ful young woman is sleep­ing in­side the tur­tle’s shell.

This is the first act of a ten­der, beau­ti­ful film screened for my Life­quest stu­dents in July. It’s called The Red Tur­tle. It was nom­i­nated for a Best An­i­mated Fea­ture Os­car ear­lier this year. You should see it, it’s on DVD now.

It was made by Michael Du­dok de Wit, a Dutch an­i­ma­tor based in Lon­don. He won an Acad­emy Award for Best An­i­mated Short in 2000 for his eight-minute film Father and Daugh­ter (it’s on YouTube). I can just about be moved to tears think­ing about his work.

You might think that’s silly, and that’s fine. Some peo­ple don’t care for po­etry, they pre­fer more prac­ti­cal arts. One guy at a screen­ing of The Red Tur­tle thought it didn’t make any sense. Dead tur­tles don’t turn into beau­ti­ful young women. He’s right about that, and maybe you could skip the movies al­to­gether be­cause they’re mostly made-up stuff. Fake news. All pre­tend.

The way I look at it, The Red Tur­tle is our story—we’re all born half-drown­ing in the tu­mult, we’re all stranded in our own con­scious­ness. We have our dreams thwarted. We kill our tur­tles. We’re all trapped on this rock. We don’t re­ally know why.

Yet some­how we have ev­ery­thing we need. Our rock pro­vides, or at least it has so far.

We scrab­ble up the moun­tain and look around and imag­ine that we’ve fixed our­selves in the cos­mos.

I think the big shift came when we be­gan to tell our­selves sto­ries, when we be­gan to rec­og­nize pat­terns in the mael­strom, the cy­cles of day and night and win­ter and sum­mer and life and death and the in­evitabil­ity of our own ex­tinc­tion. You start to re­al­ize that you’ve got an ex­pi­ra­tion date, maybe it con­cen­trates the mind.

That is what dis­tin­guishes us from the less-com­pli­cated beasts, the knowl­edge that we’re only here for a short while. Na­ture is in­no­cent in its gore, but we are alert to our lim­its. We can to some de­gree plumb the world be­yond our rock. This leads us to force mean­ing into our ex­pe­ri­ence, to try to con­nect with each other and the uni­verse at large.

So we in­vent lan­guage. We’re mag­i­cal. We can read each others’ minds.

And our words have def­i­ni­tions, but they also have shad­ows. They have a haunt­ed­ness—con­no­ta­tions and dis­crete shades of mean­ings. There is no such thing as a syn­onym—the “dark lands” are not the same as the “dim ter­ri­to­ries.” Pre­ci­sion is of para­mount im­por­tance, tol­er­ances are ex­tremely tight.

You know this, maybe in your bones. Or maybe not. It seems lots of peo­ple these days deny the power of words. They use them ca­su­ally, with­out much re­gard to their po­ten­tial. We have de­na­tured “awe­some,” we con­jure “al­ter­na­tive facts” and “re­al­ity TV” (which is the fak­est kind of show). Newt Gin­grich tells us it is not what is that is im­por­tant, it’s how you think you feel about the rhetoric of sales­peo­ple. Rudy Gi­u­liani re­minds us every­one who’s able is un­faith­ful now and then. Peo­ple nod their heads in as­sent.

You have the right to be­lieve what­ever non­sense flat­ters you or makes you feel like a char­ac­ter in some­one’s movie. You can make up the world you want to live in, the world you want to cam­paign against.

Ni­hilism is a habit of mind for some, a rev­e­la­tion for others. The no­tion that noth­ing mat­ters seems self-ev­i­dent to some of us; those who sense an empti­ness at the core of life which af­ter all is short, ab­surd and painful. No one will re­mem­ber us in the far dis­tant fu­ture; maybe no one will re­mem­ber us next week.

So why not get what you can while you can? Why not play the game with ruth­less gusto? Why not scream your name into the void, scrawl it on the wall or tack it onto sky­scrapers? Why not do the drugs and trash the planet? Why not take their money and do their bid­ding and pro­mul­gate the cover story? Why not em­brace cyn­i­cism? Why not treat other peo­ple as ob­jects for your amuse­ment? To be “vir­tu­ous” is sim­ply a ar­bi­trary choice that has no em­pir­i­cal ef­fect on a world that will con­tinue to spin un­til it fails and cools to a life­less rock. To what it was be­fore this brief chaos.

Maybe be­cause we don’t have to live like that. Be­cause, whether it’s true or not, we can imag­ine we have been sparked by the di­vine.

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