Learning THE ALPHABET from David Lynch

For the last couple of weeks or so, Lucy’s favorite book has been Sesame Street ABCs, and I sing the ABC song while incorporating the various Sesame Street characters (B for Big Bird, C for Cookie Monster, etc.). I do this several times throughout the day, and often multiple times in a row. I have always read to Lucy, and my wife and I joke about how children’s books are beginning to shape how we view the world. We will often finish our sentences with phrases out of whatever book is popular at the time, and this is both hilarious and frightening. There is something deeply unsettling about finding myself singing the alphabet song in my head when cleaning the kitchen, or making dinner, or falling asleep at night. Somehow, this surreal vortex led me to David Lynch.

As mentioned in my first blog post, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is one of my top-five favorite movies, and if I were to make a top-five directors list, he would surely be on it. Without Lynch, I wouldn’t be as passionate about film as I am now, as he introduced to me the strange, wonderful, and disturbing things that moving pictures can create. I can only hope and pray that Lynch makes another movie, a prospect that, ironically, seems to dwindle with each passing year. While this is somewhat of a tragedy for those who, like me, can’t wait to experience that next David Lynch fever-dream, we can always go back to his older material. The compilation The Short Films of David Lynch was released in 2002, and it contains several obscure works from his time at the American Film Institute (AFI) and, before that, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was there that he made The Alphabet in 1968; a nice little film of terror and insanity with profound implications. It is also quite possibly Lynch’s most important film, but not for the reasons you would expect. It isn’t a masterpiece of psychological horror. It is very much what it is; a student film that hints at the genius of its creator. The film’s importance lies in how it shaped the career of that creator.

Lynch was studying painting instead of film-making in Philadelphia, and you can see these influences all over his early work. Despite this emphasis, The Alphabet was getting a lot of attention from the film community upon its release; attention that eventually found its way to the American Film Institute, and which eventually got him accepted. His acceptance into the AFI allowed him to work on and complete Eraserhead. Without that landmark film, we never get Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive, and David Lynch would probably be some obscure artist in a garage somewhere, making weird music and meditating. Instead of this alternate reality, we have one of the most enigmatic and original American filmmakers. Lynch’s movies are so unique, both in terms of content and form, and he so quintessentially an auteur, that a person can only adequately describe his style as Lynchian; a neologism that makes perfect sense to anyone who has actually seen one of his movies. The Lynchian style is present in The Alphabet in a raw, unfinished form, but before discussing it any further, please take three-and-a-half minutes to watch it yourself:

We have here many of the themes that Lynch would flesh out over the decades; fertilization and conception (there are penises and vaginae throughout) , a threatening female sexuality, the dreamworld, and distorted reality. What is particularly interesting here is the relationship between knowledge and psychosis. The chanting of the ABCs is incessant, and the scene where the letters are being launched into the art creation’s head before it crumples into a head of bloody parts reveal the insidiousness and ultimate futility of order. If you find all of this disturbing, that’s because it is. It is unsettling to think of the man behind the art, yet, for all its grotesque themes, The Alphabet does not reveal an unbalanced or psychologically deranged maker. David Lynch is one of the most measured, stable, and meticulous filmmakers there is, and you can see this if you watch any one of the dozens of interviews on youtube.

Many filmmakers work through their psychological issues on-screen, but Lynch feels different somehow. Let’s compare him to, say, Lars Von Trier, whose Antichrist is his personal response to a life-crippling depression. Antichrist is fascinating and a very good movie, but it is brutal and ugly; a movie that leaves you with nothing but hopelessness and violence. It is also, like a David Lynch movie, deeply psychological and strange. But you would never see a woman cut off her clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors in a Lynch movie. While Von Trier and Lynch share a fascination with female sexuality and patriarchal violence, you never wonder if Lynch actually hates women. There is a big difference between indulging in one’s psychological hang-ups and thoughtfully articulating deep anxieties and fears that arise from a process of honest and courageous introspection. The former can be easily misconstrued and morph into glorification, while the latter acts like a scalpel which cuts to the heart of cultural and social diseases like misogyny, and how they infect us all.

To bring us back to Sesame Street and the ABCs, I think that this kind of honesty is important for parents. When we are responsible for caring for a life, those hidden fears and barriers we build around ourselves become much more dangerous. It can be so easy to suck our children into our neurotic fears, to project onto them our inveterate insecurities. Recognizing this, articulating it, and facing it is difficult and painful, but so important. I have tried to be brave in this way, but I fail all the time. I give in to those Lynchian horrors lurking inside of me, instead of truly understanding them.

I am not sure how deep any one of us should probe. Maybe there are things down there that should never see the light of day. But if we can go further, maybe we should, and maybe we can come out the other side more whole and complete.

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2 Responses to Learning THE ALPHABET from David Lynch

  1. Abigail says:

    “While Von Trier and Lynch share a fascination with female sexuality and patriarchal violence, you never wonder if Lynch actually hates women.” YES. You nailed it here. I tend to hate Von Trier’s films, because he relies so heavily upon pseudo-feminist tropes, but ultimately seems to spiral into misogynist nihilism. Oh, and thanks for forever ruining the ABCs for me. (Just kidding.) I love Lynch. But I also love Dr. Seuss. And now they are linked in my mind. “Big B, Little B, what begins with B? A bloody head exploding on nice clean sheets.”

  2. You should follow the Dr. Seuss-Lynch connection all the way through and write your own children’s book.

    Nicely articulated thought on Von Trier. When I get the time, I want to go back and watch some of his earlier stuff, but that might not be for a while.

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