:: Article

Turtles, Madeleines, and the Girl with Fluorescent Green Eyes

By Fernando Sdrigotti.

“[J]ust as we perceive things where they are present, in space, we remember where they have passed, in time, and we go out of ourselves just as much in each case. Memory is not in us; it is we who move in a Being-memory, a world-memory.” – Gilles Deleuze, The Time-Image

A film has haunted me for over thirty years. It must have been 1982 when I first saw it. Or perhaps earlier than that. I was four or five or six. It was an American film, almost certainly dubbed into Spanish. Perhaps I even saw it in black and white (I can’t remember when my family bought the first colour TV set). I was four or five or six and so was the film, we had four or five or six years’ delay back then.

It was a strange and melancholic story of giant turtles, with a beautiful dark-haired mermaid, what appeared to be a tragic love story, and a devil’s spell. Or something like that. It caught my child’s imagination and perhaps even helped shape the saturnine personality I would assume for the rest of my childhood, my adolescence, and adult life. Yes, it did. I blame the film for everything that happened afterwards. All the brunettes who gave me blue-balls. All the times that as an adolescent I walked alone staring at the sea, while my friends were busy being normal — this film ruined or made different every single seaside holiday from then on. Perhaps I even started writing because of that film. It’s all its fault. All the good and the bad.

I saw it that one time and missed the name or forgot it. This is Argentina in the early 1980s: days without VHS, DVDs or cable TV — no repeats. I knew back then that I was likely seeing the film for the one and only time. Or maybe I didn’t know that back then, and only knew it afterwards. Maybe it became clear later, during any of the many times when I visualised myself watching the film. The past is constantly being rewritten. It is there but we rewrite it. And I have rewritten that first moment with the film many times. I am doing it right here, once more. And I will do it again.

During the next twenty five years or so I would occasionally remember the film, ruminate about it, write a couple of lines or short stories inspired by it, rewrite a bit the moment of its seminal reception, then let it recede, and then, a couple of years later, let it resurface once more and start all over — a cycle dictated more by an obsession with the past than a love for the sci-fi genre. Like rewriting the first moment of watching it, I rewrote my childhood many times around that film. Around the memories of the film, which are not the same as the film. My childhood memories are very confusing now. Full of turtles and spooky sea creatures.

Some years ago I learnt the object of my reveries was The Bermuda Depths (Tsugunobu Kotani, 1978). Retrieving it from oblivion was a pretty easy deal: I just googled turtles + mermaid + green eyes. I could have found it years earlier, but one should be apologised for not using the internet for anything useful. Or perhaps the film’s role in my life was that of being a persistent nebulous memory, or a pivot from where to do my rewriting. Maybe it served a better purpose half-forgotten, an uneaten madeleine.

In 2009 I managed to get a pirate copy from the US (since then the film has been reissued by Warner Brothers). I delayed watching it for a while, slightly worried that The Bermuda Depths would turn out to be one of those movies that, after playing it for many years in your mind’s cinema, you end up regretting having seen a second time on a real screen (like Before SunriseRaiders of the Lost Ark, The Big Red One). But I did watch it and it was uncanny. The DVD was recorded straight from an old VHS, static included — I felt as if the web of time had been repaired (to bastardise Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil) and I could see my childhood playing before me. There was no rewriting here: this was the fucking madeleine, with Combray, the tea, and all the rest. I think I cried. Or at least — now — I want to remember myself crying when seeing it.

The story is simple: Magnus Dens (Leigh McCloskey) is now a blond hunk who returns to Bermuda, after a long absence, to visit an old family friend, Eric (Carl Weathers, of Rocky fame), a marine biologist. There is something of a trip down memory lane in this return too. While he is sleeping on a beach we learn — via flashbacks — that he was once a kid there, that he fell in love with some kind of infant mermaid — or a creature of the sea because when we see her fully grown up there are no fins or weird stuff like that — called Jennie Haniver (Connie Sellecca). As the story of Magnus’s visit to the island unfolds we also learn that his father — a marine scientist — was killed and eaten by a giant turtle during a terrible storm in what is by all means a toy pool in a toy house (it’s supposed to be his lab), and that Jennie disappeared into the sea with the same turtle without much of an explanation. Magnus is left fatherless and loveless. Of course he has spent his life haunted by this memory, a bit like me with the memory of the film. The grown-up Jennie remains an evasive yet stunning figure; the fact that she died in a shipwreck some 300 years ago and that she made a pact with the devil in order to live forever doesn’t make things easier. It’s all pretty screwed up and contrived — of all the women in the world falling in love with a satanic mermaid… The rest of the film follows the same effete line, including more Lego-sfxs and a key moment when Jennie’s diabolical nature is revealed with a close-up of her fluorescent green eyes. Then Apollo Creed is killed by a turtle too (yes, the same turtle). In other words: the film sucks. Proper B stuff. And yet I’m writing about it now, and I have been thinking about it for over thirty years. I can’t be all scholarly about it, and I welcome that in a film. When I think of it I need to write intensities, affects, and this is truly fantastic.

When researching the film in the recent past, I was surprised to learn that The Bermuda Depths has left a lasting impression on the minds of scores of people my age: there are several forums and sites that discuss it, a Facebook page, fan videos on Youtube, with incredible intense and melancholic comments. I find it amusing that an obscure flick, screened a couple of times nearly three decades ago, only on TV, could have had this lasting effect on kids all over the world. Yes, kids, because without exception all of us, haunted by The Bermuda Depths, were kids when we fell under its spell. There is a pattern that repeats itself when fans write or talk about it: everyone mentions being hooked with it as a child, forgetting its name, being haunted for years (by the girl, the boy, the song), bumping into it once more, travelling back in time to the first watching, the madeleine, you know. Maybe that is the key to it. Maybe by watching the film we are all actually rewriting our childhoods, eating that madeleine, or connecting with some central nerve, our own sci-fi Combray. I always assumed my childhood to be peripheral and yet I can share an obsession with a guy — say – in Memphis, Tennessee. Or Kathmandu. Someone in Paris. Some sea-staring New Yorker. And maybe some other freak in Argentina. There is a community of unknown people out there with whom I have more in common than most of those around me. We have all been touched by the same film, at around the same moment in time, in complete different parts of the world, in different languages. We have been changed by it. We kept coming back to it. For over thirty years. If that is the benchmark of what good cinema entails, then The Bermuda Depths is one of the best films ever made.

Or not. Maybe we just needed an excuse to keep looking into the past, rewriting it. Proust had the madeleine. We have The Bermuda Depths.

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer and mermaid hunter. He is lost at sea here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 30th, 2014.