It is fairly likely that anyone reading this who is familiar with either the animated film The Red Turtle or the podcast S-Town might not initially think that these two narratives have anything in common. One features a seemingly dead turtle transforming into a woman, which is about as wildly fictional as you can get, while the other is an open and searching portrayal of a real man’s life, tragically cut short by his own hand. But in a way both stories are centred around castaways – one literally and one figuratively; men who live apart from society, whether that’s by choice or by circumstance, but still seek fulfilment from the difficult lives they’ve been afforded. I believe at the heart of these two, in many ways dissimilar, stories lies unifying themes of loss, love, and isolation.
The Red Turtle is a recent French-Japanese animated film directed by Dutch-British animator Michaël Dudok de Wit and produced by Toshio Suzuki. The latter you may recognise as a producer for Studio Ghibli, which co-produced The Red Turtle with Wild Bunch, who have under their belt award winners such as Pan’s Labyrinth (about which you can read culturised’s thoughts here) and The Artist (2011). So the film has, without a doubt, a distinct pedigree. However, anybody coming to see The Red Turtle who is hoping for Spirited Away 2.0 may well be disappointed – this pared back tale doesn’t really resemble a Studio Ghibli film in either animation style or narrative. It tells the story of a man shipwrecked on a small island who has his attempts to escape foiled by a giant red turtle which, when the man attempts to kill it in a moment of despair, transforms into a woman. The rest of the film, in its humble wordless way, depicts this couple living out the rest of their lives together.
What’s interesting as a viewer is that the film touches on many of the classic castaway tropes – we see the protagonist source food and water, plot an escape, and suffer through the despair of his situation. However, it lacks several of the factors we associate with these narratives, with a key omission being what Christopher Palmer refers to as “an account of the castaway’s work and improvisation.” Indeed, one of the most unusual aspects to The Red Turtle is that throughout the film, except for some initial attempts at raft building, our nameless hero doesn’t appear motivated to build anything. Across a lifetime played out on screen, he fishes, swims, makes love, and survives natural disasters, but at no point whatsoever does he erect so much as a twig for shelter. This lies in stark contrast to classic castaway stories – Robison Crusoe (1719) devotes pages to everything from the weaving of wicker baskets to carving out not one but two canoes (the first being too large, of course). Contrary to this, the journalistic podcast S-Town, which studies the real story of John B Mclemore, a man who “despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it”, is definitely more of the Robinson Crusoe variety of castaway tale.
S-Town is structured in a way which makes the listener feel like they’re in a whirlpool, circling round and round the life of this one man, each episode revealing a little more and giving the sensation of draining down to the essential truth of what makes up this person. Within this metaphor, at the top of the whirlpool, lies John B’s love of projects. In one of his very first conversations with S-Town’s narrator Brian Reed, John B refers to a giant hedge maze of his own making and “the only one in the state”, rattling off its co-ordinates in Google Maps. A prime example of this adoration for projects was this elaborate maze he constructed, but this passion extended to his professional life where he made his (rumoured) millions rebuilding antique clocks. He clearly takes pleasure in these pursuits and enjoys discussing them at length, but a large part of this enjoyment seems to derive in part because they act as a bridge to important people in his life. Members of his town even suggest that he creates projects solely to support his young friend Tyler Goodson financially. Alongside this, one of his few lovers mentioned in the podcast are described as working on his yard.
And yet, these projects ultimately provide a tenuous link to other people. No matter how much work John B may have for Tyler on his property, at the end of the day Tyler returns to his family. At this point I feel it is important to address once again a deeply important difference between The Red Turtle and S-Town: one is fictional and one is a real account of a man’s life.
S-Town lays bare for us John B’s story in a manner so probing and voyeuristic that one journalist labelled it “morally indefensible”. This same writer states that in longer-form journalism “it is always the reporter’s story being told, not the story of his or her subjects” and in many senses I agree with that. John B’s story in S-Town is shaped by the aspects of John’s life on which Brian Reed wants us to focus, and so consequently Reed shapes the story around them. Therefore with any analysis I (or anyone else) make it’s fair to say is more of an analysis of the story as Reed tells it rather than of John B himself. Like looking into a kaleidoscope, I’m only viewing the reflection of a reflection and from that I draw my own conclusions about John B and his life.
The motivation behind John B’s suicide is left up to debate, and while Reed provides many suggestions, he is hesitant ever to draw a finite conclusion. In the opening to the show, he refers to how in order to work out the missing pieces in a broken clock you have to rely on “witness marks”, which are “impressions, and outlines, and discolourations” left in the clock from what was there previously. These are used to give the clock repairer an insight into what was in the original maker’s mind “when he created the thing”. Reed searches out for witness marks in John B’s life, and from them we are able make guesses at what might have motivated this man to take his life. In speaking to John B’s friends, past and present, we are painted a picture of a man who undoubtedly suffers from mental illness – possibly as a result of mercury poisoning. But whilst there are many factors that contributed to John B’s decision, there is however one in particular to which I personally keep returning.
In one of the most revealing episodes of the show, Reed interviews a man called Olin who was a long-time friend and (perhaps) lover of John B. Olin describes a conversation he had once with him, which took place after a love tryst of John B’s had met with failure. “He said”, Olin reports, “I’m desperate to have that kind of a relationship. You know, a one-on-one partnership kind of relationship. I want it desperately.” Although by no means stranded on an island, as a climate change obsessed gay man living in rural Alabama John is certainly still stranded in another sense. In contrast, our speechless protagonist in The Red Turtle faces literal rather than metaphorical isolation from society, living as he does on his tiny island. But while he may be isolated from society as a whole, he has his ex-turtle companion for company. And perhaps – certainly in my eyes – that’s precisely why he doesn’t fill his days with the building of huts or weaving of baskets. Shots of utter serenity are shown in the two lovers sleeping beneath the moon on grass, or holding each other in their old age on the sand. This is of course an extremely romantic reading of both narratives, but the concept that life is made fulfilling by love is hardly a new or novel idea.
This leads me to addressing another striking difference between John B Mclemore and our nameless protagonist in The Red Turtle, which is their dialogue, or lack thereof. While the man in the The Red Turtle is mute, John B is overflowing with words – an uncontrollable onslaught, even, which frequently exasperates the podcast host and John B’s interviewer, Brian Reed. On a deeper level these characteristics are essential to the stories themselves; The Red Turtle’s lack of dialogue is an extension of the minimalist aesthetic which inhabits the entire film, making you linger on minor details, such as the scuttling of a crab, which may otherwise escape your notice. S-Town, on the other hand, hinges on John B’s loquacious nature, not only for the very obvious reason that being a podcast the entirety of the narrative is shaped by the spoken word but because it highlights one of the most deeply tragic aspects to the podcast. John B spends decades of his life doing what essentially sounds like a whole lot of talking – Reed interviews a variety of people who all attest to spending hours on the phone with John B at numerous times in their lives – and yet, for all that talking he fails to make a lasting and fulfilling connection. Of course this is only based on what we’re told as listeners, and what Reed is able to discover, but it’s an argument I find convincing.
Ursula Le Guin in a piece titled “Telling is Listening” explores how speech is an essential way by which we connect with each other. In a metaphor which feels apt for S-Town, she describes how if you “mount two clock pendulums side by side on the wall, they will gradually begin to swing together. They synchronise each other by picking up tiny vibrations they each transmit through the wall.” Here Le Guin refers to the subtle way in which speech influences how we connect, not just mentally or spiritually, but also physically, as a “bodily process”. For some reason, John B’s pendulum swings and swings for decades, without ever falling into sync with someone.
Le Guin also states:
“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”
If this is the case then The Red Turtle is an entirely uneventful story. Despite the narrative spanning decades of his lifetime, our protagonist doesn’t utter much more than the occasional wordless groan. In spite of this, he manages to connect romantically with a partner and even raise a child. As a viewer the absence of speech does indeed feel like a physical loss, during the hour and twenty minutes running length I, at times, felt myself desperate to hear them speak even a single recognisable syllable. And yet, did it lack energy? Or emotion? Or understanding? Absolutely not. The protagonist speaks volumes when he pushes away his remaining raft into the water, choosing to remain with the woman over returning to society. Much is said when he holds her as they look out to the sea or in his arms in the moonlit grass. They communicate every time they touch or gaze at each other, or work together to raise their child.
What works beautifully in the film is that it tends to distil things down to their essentials – in this case, strip back the words and leave the communication that remains. For John B his words don’t seem able to form that vital lifeline, his long diatribes against the world, and his town, sometimes feel like an event but they don’t change things. I cannot say that if John B had found somebody who would have welcomed what he had to say and in turn welcomed him into their hearts, that it would have changed anything – many people who take their own lives are dearly loved and having a romantic partner does not magically cure mental illness. I do believe, however, that Reed’s framing of the podcast purposefully suggests to the listener that John B’s lack of a companion was a major contributing factor in his suicide.
Reed devotes a significant portion of the podcast to revelations of John B’s love life and sexuality, such as the in-depth interview with Olin. He also informs us that on the night of John B’s death, one of John B’s last actions was to call Tyler begging him to return – which Tyler tells Reed was not an unusual occurrence. Whether the importance that Reed appears to place on this aspect of John B’s life is accurate, it is hard to say, as naturally the subject himself is not able to defend or deny. This is one of those aspects to the morality of the podcast, which feels the most murky; whose place is it for any of us to speculate the true motivations behind John B’s actions? It’s impossible to know how deep any sense of isolation John B had may have run, especially as the portrait that S-Town paints of him is a complex one; This is a man who used to describe his life in Bibb County with the phrase “You learn to live without”, without “sex, love, romance, support, companionship, the touch of another person, a partner”. This heart-wrenching phrase seems to suggest both resignation and loneliness. Being alone for John B seemed to be both a blessing a curse – in his suicide letter, he wrote that the best times of his life were spent walking in solitude in “the forest and the field”.
As John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” For me, these isolated men in The Red Turtle and S-Town are united in their struggle, which is that which we all share, to live fulfilling and whole lives. They’re such attractive narratives because we’re able to recognise in them the enduring themes of love, loss and mortality. I have chosen to focus largely on romantic love as a form of fulfilment in this instance, but that is just one lens with which to view both stories. View them like a kaleidoscope; twist the perspective and the whole image changes.
 Christopher Palmer, Castaway Tales: From Robinson Crusoe to Life of Pi, (Wesleyan University Press, 2016): 71
 Gay Alcorn, “S-Town never justifies its voyeurism and that makes it morally indefensible”, The Guardian, 22nd April 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/22/s-town-never-justifies-its-voyeurism-and-that-makes-it-morally-indefensible
 Ursula Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, The Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, 2004)
John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, (University of Michigan Press, 1959): 108-9