Wednesday, June 07, 2006

THE ALPHABET


THE ALPHABET
Directed by David Lynch, USA, 1968, 4 minutes.
Source: The Short Films of David Lynch [D 1751]

Lynch’s early short begins with the sound of children chanting “A-B-C, A-B-C, A-B-C.” An animated sequence of letters appears sequentially on the screen to create an abstract form on the screen while the accompanying soundtrack combines what sounds like wind with a man singing scales with lyrics that imply learning how to read. Another sequence then interjecting the sound of a crying baby with a large letter “a” stylistically depicted. The chanting returns for a moment and then we have a series of still shots of a horrified young woman in the bottom right corner of what is otherwise a black screen being tormented by individual letters as someone intones an eerie version of the Alphabet Song; after “Z,” the image holds on the image of the young girl tied elaborately to the bed (as seen above). The last image unfolds in slow motion as the girl on the bed vomits red liquid all over the bed.

Apparently inspired by hearing of a niece’s nightmare about the alphabet, Lynch uses horrific audio and imagery to suggest the tyrannic nature of letters. The letters are introduced visually in a manner that does not suggest the next step – that is, the organization of letters into words and therefore meaning. Rather, the letters are first arranged in repeated fashion to create an elaborate, if ultimately unidentifiable, shape. The chanting children seem to me to be more insistent than innocent, demanding a response much in the same way as children might circle around and taunt a weaker specimen. Indeed at the end, the jump cuts to each image of the terrified girl toward the end of the piece is accompanied by the a breathy, timid voice reciting the alphabet song. The effect is not pleasing, nor cohesive; rather, each letter seems distinct yet cumulatively oppressive. It is no wonder that following this melee of horrific images – these letters without comprehension or meaning – that the girl wakens to a bloody mass, having been forced into this state by the onslaught.

It is not a stretch to imagine that Lynch is breaking apart one of the most basic structures – the arrangement of letters into the alphabet – in order to demonstrate the power of these signs as images. At a point where we use language to unite, the film forces us to consider the destructive nature of letters,

3 comments:

Christine said...
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Rhead said...

I agree, "It is not a stretch to imagine that Lynch is breaking apart one of the most basic structures . . . in order to demonstrate the power of these signs as images," but I find it ironic that a film so careful to destroy signification at its point of juncture would elicit a comment intent on procuring abstract meaning beyond the viscera of a girl's nightmare.

But that's what we do: we rework chaos to provide symmetry and pattern, the exponents of any meaning-making system, which has no more quintessential representative in the world than language and its spiny alphabet. I wonder, is it untoward to imagine that Lynch had no philosophical aim beyond artistic philosophy intent on the verisimilar re-presentation of a dream world?

It doesn't matter. Meaning is so often made on the viewer's side of the object, anyway. And so, to JMR's suggestion that the film "forces us to consider the destructive nature of letters" (those scary monsters in every kids closet, their dusty white silhouettes on chalkboards, and sometimes in fuzzy felt for the littlest ones) I add my own: letters and their combinants are sweetly random, sometimes arbitrary and, despite the order we impose upon and wrest from them (those overworked darlings), often incomprehensible, not unlike this film.

Christine said...

In a funny/sad way this short reminded me of the documentary "Spellbound." The girl in this film may be suffering from some serious spelling bee anxiety. I could really see a few of those kids waking up in a cold sweat, overwhelmed by non-stop studying and/or their parents.

In all the randomness with the letters and chanting, there may be something said for how we educate children. We force them to memorize (and recite) seemingly arbitray symbols through song and visual mediums before helping them understand that the letters can be used to make words and therefore communicate their ideas through written work. Usually the first pratical application of the alphabet is helping kids learn how to spell their names and recognize it as part of their identity.This is true of elementary education in every subject, where we learn the basics before understanding them in new and more worthwhile contexts as we go age.

So if an experimental is supposed to nudge us onto a few different, seemingly disparate trains of thought, then in my opinion, this film succeeds.