Movie review: The Red Turtle and some reflections on aesthetic appreciation

The Red Turtle is a 2016 animated fantasy feature from Studio Ghibli by Dutch animator, writer and director Michael Dudok de Witt. It is a beautiful movie and I hope that, if you haven’t already seen it, you see it soon. The film is particularly noticeable because it has no dialogue, just lovely animation with expressive animals, including humans, and scenes of nature, both beautiful and powerful. I write about it today as a follow-up to my recent Aesthemos post and to consider some issues it raised in my mind, e.g., the difference between aesthetic emotions and those emotions depicted or evoked, aesthetic judgment, and the difference between linguistic meaning and artistic import. Travel on then.

The plot is simple and spare. The movie opens with a man struggling in a stormy sea with no context for how he came to such a dire strait. He somehow manages to land on the beach of an isolated tropical island and frantically discovers that he is all alone and that no other land is in sight. He tries to leave the island several times via a raft and each time something rises up underneath and smashes the raft. He discovers this to be a large red turtle. When it crawls ashore he wreaks his anger on it, killing it, though then the shell cracks open and a beautiful maiden emerges. They join together in a paradisiacal life and have a child, who grows up to befriend other turtles in the sea, help his parents in many things as they age, even saving his father when he is washed away along with much of the island’s forest in a tsunami. Eventually the son swims away with his turtle friends and the couple grow old together until the man dies, and then the woman returns to her turtle form and the sea from which she came.

Other events are important, like the father and later the son falling into a cave, the only possible escape from which is to swim through a narrow underwater outlet to the ocean. Many of the events are witnessed by sand crabs scuttling around the beach with humorous expressions. All told, then, the simple tale stands alone as a symbol with other symbols contributing to its artistic import. I use Langer’s term for the deep structure of artistic communication and not the word borrowed from language, “meaning.” I think there is an important difference between, when after watching this beautiful and somewhat enigmatic movie, you ask what it ‘means’ or what is its artistic ‘import’. Both can be explicated further, but the former presumes a concrete clarity already socially sanctioned and so governed by some semantic standard, while the latter presumes that any linguistic rendering of the emotions, aesthetic, evoked, or depicted, and of the symbols’ compositions and implications, is only an approximation to the vital experience symbolically realized and conveyed. That is the essential difference between Langer’s discursive and presentational symbolic forms.

Aesthetic judgment relies upon, or it should, the feelings and symbolic form expressed. In these modern times, meaning the last 15,000 years, I think the pervading power of our civilizing impulses sometimes clouds these facets. Consider Aristotle’s dictum that art, e.g., drama, depends upon the temporary suspension of disbelief. I have friends who would not bother with this movie because it is a cartoon, which, I presume, places it beyond their suspension of disbelief. I have other friends who focus on the details drawing their critical attention, e.g., it is cartoon and so for kids, it is a realistic live action movie but cartoonish (as if that was a bad thing), the actor did not fit their preconception, or something happens that does not fit together, etc. In the Red Turtle I can tell you the tropical island had a single seal (unreal) and one time the moon set over the ocean facing the wrong way (and the rest of the times its depiction was astronomically accurate), but while noticed, the artistic enchantment held together.

In talking with my more persnickety friends I have come to rely on the phrase ‘critical appreciation’. Some people are so bent on being critical they forget the appreciation and others appreciate without much thought. Most, I believe, combine some level of both, and as naturally happens, when they like something and view or hear it repeatedly, their criticism diminishes and their appreciation dominates until with perhaps too many repetitions, the feelings subside to be recalled again when old and grey.

The Red Turtle (RT), to me, is high art. Using Aesthemos’ taxonomy of aesthetic emotions, RT strongly presents some prototypical aesthetic emotions, e.g., beauty (of several things, events, relationships and nature), fascination with the characters and events, especially the continually composing import of the film as a whole, feeling moved by their isolation and mutual support, awe in the face of nature’s power and beauty, etc. Pleasing emotions are evident with the flippant humor of the sand crabs, the joy of life and their child, and the energy/vitality of their survival. Epistemic emotions also arise with surprises of the red turtle’s changing role in the story, interest in what will happen next and finally, and the challenge to grasp the insight into life offered by this film with no words. Other emotions are depicted, e.g., fear, anger, and evoked, e.g., sadness, isolation, etc.

Aesthetic judgment is a complex process joining aesthetic apprehension and experience of aesthetic emotions, critical appreciation, the comprehension of plot, characters, and emotions depicted and evoked, and above all, the successful reception of the presentational symbol conveying the felt vital experience. Regular readers here know I am fond of Joyce’s taxonomy, drawn from Aquinas, of aesthetical appreciation of beauty: the integrity of the whole, the coherence of its elements, and the illumination the art from provides. Joyce goes further to say high art comes to a static resting place, i.e., nothing else is desired and the consumer rests in the light provided; that is the Joycean epiphany. Lower art is dynamic, i.e., the consumer is left aroused and wanting, as in didactic or pornographic (loosely defined to include car chases, explosions, and scary scenes as well as sex) art. That art, both its expression and reception, is an intellectual endeavor of great scope and depth is, I hope, evident here today. Amidst all the activities of daily life and society’s functioning (maybe over estimating that given our current politics), art as a prominent and essential feature of our humanity is often lost (and some even abandon it) amongst the dynamic welter of what we still call civilization. Remember, though, William Carlos Williams’ lines from his great poem ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.


Once again I come to one of the main motivations for this blog: understanding our humanity, especially our art, as a biological phenomenon. I am preparing a series of posts in celebration of publishing this blog now for 4 years; never thought about going this long but I learn too much to let it go fallow for long. Travel on.

Beauty beyond evolutionary adaptation

An article in the New York Times reports that a biologist is challenging his peers to consider the appearance of beauty as exceeding the bounds of evolutionary success, i.e., sometimes beauty just happens without reference to reproductive success. Hurrah! Here is link:  Richard Prum studies birds and so understands pretty well that the song and plumage of male birds as well as the nests of bower birds are important factors in female selection of mates. Given the exigencies of natural selection, we assume that such male traits and behaviors provide reliable signals about the viability of the genes the male contributes to the next generation. Of course genetic viability is difficult to assess, so I think that our assumption is just that and the question of whether the best genes for survival also promote the best signaling is still an empirical one. Anyone know of research into this? And not just for birds, but for guppies and lightning bugs and . . . .

Even humans. Do the most attractive people (somewhat culturally determined) pass on the better genes? If so, are our half humorous stereotypes of the dumb (but handsome) jock, the vacuous beauty and all the other good lookers simply wrong? External signaling may fail to convey information about mental prowess (and presumably the genes that carry that forward) and I am sure that some nerds make great mates. We humans, though, find beauty in places besides evolutionary viability, and though I certainly believe that both the apprehension and the creation of beauty through art is a positive evolutionary development and that it contributes greatly to our species’ humanity and success, even that Picasso’s or Einstein’s or Spike Lee’s genes are quite important in that regard, I think that much happens on Gaia and in each life that bears little connection to reproductive success. So I applaud Dr. Prum’s prodding his colleagues on this point.

To develop a line of thinking that runs through my blog, artistic work seems to come two ways, both an expression of an individual, thus dependent upon the lonely self and its social expressiveness. The first is Dissanayake’s ‘making special’ where, akin to ‘signaling’ cited above, we mark our tools and objects and surroundings as special, e.g., a craftsman forms a tool of elegant shape for its function or adds designs to enhance its beauty or we bring flowers into the house or otherwise decorate our surroundings (see post 5/16/16). This I call art as incidental. Then we have art that is more central to its own intention, art for art’s sake in modern terms, though earlier art served a religious or spiritual purpose, which also seems a special class of intent. The difference is one of degrees perhaps, but the first is an expression of self (signaling the self’s specialness) and the second is an expression of the self’s experience (a symbol communicating some import of felt life, following, as always, Susanne Langer).

The NYT article cites a question by physicist Manu Prakash, “Why is there so much beauty?” How to answer? Just the way the cookie crumbles? Gaia only rolls that way? Or humans, and maybe other animals in their own way, notice patterns, and some patterns ‘speak’ more. I remember years ago reading about Paul Dirac, who shared the 1933 Nobel Erwin Schrodinger (see previous post) for his contributions to quantum theory. Dirac’s equation predicted the existence of anti-matter, and while many initially were skeptical, Dirac said he knew his equation bore some truth because it was “beautiful.” (For the record, Dirac seems to have operated on the genius end of the autistic spectrum). Another pattern are Fibonacci numbers, a curious set of integers where each one in the progression is a sum of the preceding two. Mathematicians have found various properties to these and biologists have discovered that they seem to operate in a variety of ways in nature; consider some genetic patterns and flower patterns like this chamomile flower with the Fibonacci pattern marked out for us.


By User:Alvesgaspar:derivative work: RDBury (Mother_and_daughter.jpg)

Now I am back in a period of reading books by and about James Joyce, so of course his aesthetic theory based upon Acquinas (at least that old guy got something right) comes to mind: beauty has 3 properties, integrity (unity), harmony (coherence of parts in that unity) and radiance (the light shining through the form illuminating the artistic import). The first two are well known in Gestalt Theory, e.g., the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the third now, what about radiance? Consider this photograph:


What’s it to be, luminous or numinous?

A cloud of billowing integrity composed harmonically of statically floating water condensation and, when I first saw it, a beautiful vision. We perceive (and some create) patterns; to some we bring radiance and thus we apprehend the beauty in nature and in our own artifactual creations. If there is a lot of beauty around, we bring it there ourselves (oh humans, and the converse as well).

Finally, back to evolution and the ocean of life. Last year we saw a beautiful (oh yes, there it is again) film, Tangerines, about an old man, Ivo, caught up in a civil war in eastern Europe who helps others without question and who, it turns out, has lost his son in the war and his family has left him to move back to Estonia and escape the violence, while he remains to help a friend with his tangerine harvest and to tend his son’s grave. The film’s artistic import centers around Ivo’s heroic effort to lead a good life in a world torn by war. And evolution? What do an old man’s tears over losing his family and home have to do with evolution? A koan for modern times. Linger here awhile before traveling on.