David Lynch's first "true" short film, The Alphabet, preceded the premiere of PBS' Sesame Street by a year, but by 1968 ground-breaking research in education and psychology had already provided the foundation for the newly-created Children's Television Workshop. One suspects that Lynch, who typically has a casual disregard for contemporary social movements and pop cultural phenomena, took no notice of the seismic shift occurring in television, which was about to take upon itself the task of educating American preschoolers with unprecedented earnestness and rigor. In fact, the genesis for The Alphabet lies, according to Lynch, in a distressing episode reported by his then-wife Peggy Reavey, whose niece had suffered a nightmare that prompted her to repeat the alphabet over and over in her sleep. Nonetheless, with the benefit of hindsight, it's appealing to regard Lynch's film as a dark presaging of Sesame Street's spry, scientific instruction in early language skills. With a richly symbolic, viscerally disturbing four-minute pseudo-narrative, Lynch presents an adult's vision of a child's striking, abstract fears. Education, in the form of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, becomes a psychic violation. The fact that Lynch employs animation and sing-alongs only adds to the uncanny aura for post-Sesame Street viewers, transforming The Alphabet into one of the director's most effective efforts at straightforward horror.
Breaking free of the moving-yet-static constraints of his multi-media installation, Six Figures Getting Sick, Lynch embraces the possibilities of the filmic medium with live-action footage, stills, and animation. In the dreams of a sleeping Girl, the alphabet become a relentless, creeping, fungus-like force that excretes capsules, filaments, and pseudopodia forming the twenty-six runes of the English language. In contrast to the traditionally constructive view of education, Lynch conceptualizes the seemingly benign process of learning the alphabet as a repulsive phenomenon, one that entails distressing transformations. The biological elements that were relatively ambiguous in Six Figures are put to a starkly metaphorical purpose here. The Alphabet is replete with phallic and vaginal shapes, white and crimson oozing substances, and alphabetic "spores" as virulent as any anthrax strain. The capital letter A gives birth to wailing little a's, one of which replaces the dream-Girl's head. (This pattern will recur in more gruesome form in Eraserhead, when Henry's head is supplanted by that of his own mutant infant.) The "shooting" of letters into the girl's brain-box results in a violent disintegration, as, with a gasp, her head melts into bloody goo. At the film's conclusion, this image is echoed as the Girl, waking (or not?) from her nightmare, writhes amid her sheets and vomits blood. The alphabet has, in the words of Blue Velvet's Dorothy, "put its disease in her."
The sound design, as crude as it is, deserves particular attention in The Alphabet. The conspicuous, whistling winds that will blow through much of Lynch's works, often with sinister connotations, are the dominant sonic feature here. Howling wind is, of course, the aural sign of an otherwise invisible force, air moving in response to pressure differentials. One is reminded of Twin Peaks' wind-swept Douglas-firs and the demonic BOB who, like the letters that assault the cranium of the Girl, pushes his way into the minds of the weak. Singing figures prominently in the film's soundscape as well, whether in the form of a man's oddly flourished execution of a bit of doggerel or the Girl's fearful, almost-whispered rendition of the familiar Alphabet Song. Most arresting, however, is the chanting of a group of children, who repeat, with mounting vigor, "A, B, C! A, B, C!" Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" is still a decade away, and while Roger Waters would eventually capitalize on the eerie authority of indignant children's voices for an anti-establishment message, Lynch is blazing a far more unconventional path here. He is firmly in the nightmare landscape of a sleeping child, and in that space the chanting of the Girl's peers is not a stirring anthem but an underlining of the anxieties of conformity. The letters become a schoolyard taunt, an admonishment to keep up with the rest of the class, delivered with a hardened edge of cruelty. Many other alarming sounds intrude insistently into the film, including a sobbing infant and a ceaseless, droning tone. As with Six Figures, the sound design suggests a state of distress, which is at odds with the traditionally positive associations with learning one's alphabet.
The ominously expressive character of the The Alphabet, unmoored from a conventional narrative, grants it a frank sociological coloring that is unique in Lynch's work. Contrary to his reputation as an obscurantist, Lynch's filmography is characterized by decisive critiques of sexism, commercialism, stoicism, hedonism, and old-fashioned human depravity. Yet these views are often tightly wedded to flamboyantly conveyed characters and settings. The short format and surreal character of The Alphabet permit Lynch to engage in a much more forthright and uncluttered examination of the process of education, sans a genre-indebted storyline. Within The Alphabet's sinister, poetic confines, education takes on the air of a breach or infection. The child's mind, which exists in a pre-language state of openness, is restrained and subjected, Ludovico-style, to a repeating sequence of runic symbols, which authorities insist must form the basis for her future thoughts. The individual who was once receptive of non-verbal inspiration becomes rigidly bound to a discrete set of formulae. The process of internalizing the alphabetic figures thus becomes a kind of mental foot-binding, a deformation of the child's natural state in order to fulfill the cultural requirements of adults.
Needless to say, Lynch is not some education theory radical advocating the discarding of the alphabet, nor is he suggesting that education is a purely malevolent rite of passage. Rather, he is asking us to look at a mundane social process with new eyes, specifically the fearful eyes of child. He underlines his point with bizarre, seemingly arbitrary inserts, such as an upside-down human jaw--complete with prosthetic nose on the chin--that intones, "Please remember, you are dealing with a human form." This moment serves both as an empathic caution (the Girl's agency should be respected) and a sly statement of Lynch's favored theme: the deceptive, concealing nature of physical realities. Other elements in the film are less comprehensible: a groaning, red-tongued mouth; an animated white orb that ricochets through a narrow corridor; a dark field of stars or dots (a repeating image in Lynch's oeuvre). These fragments lend the work the feeling of a free-fall nightmare, for while their meaning is uncertain, they seem fitting within the context of a dreamscape. Lynch's skill at integrating the surreal into his films will develop substantially over years. The roughly grafted strangeness-for-strangeness' sake in The Alphabet will later evolve into the evocative pageant of uncanniness that characterizes Twin Peak's dream sequences, and a better part of the Lost Highway / Mulholland Drive / INLAND EMPIRE cycle.
It's not The Alphabet's surreal flourishes that provide its fearful potency, but Lynch's developing talent for employing every aspect of the film's design to convey the Girl's terror. The aforementioned soundtrack is crucial, but so is the minimalist design of the bedroom, which appears to be nothing but a white-sheeted bed floating in a black void. The girl's makeup suggests the countenance of a kabuki actor or the frozen scream of an Iroquois false face. The animated sequences, which seem to be alternately whimsical and coldly detached, evoke Francis Bacon's unsettling images as the Girl's dream-self is restrained and assaulted with letter-ejaculate. Again, we find that subsequent cinematic history has only enhanced the film's force. The nightgown-clad Girl's bed-born thrashings and vomiting are echoed in William Friedkin's 1973 horror masterpiece, The Exorcist, which also centered on a girl invaded by an outside force. In Lynch's film, however, no priests arrive to save the child from her torment. The drama of The Alphabet is that of an internal struggle, and the protagonist's solitary conflict is the essence of the film. In this, The Alphabet has more in common with Lynch's late works than, say, The Elephant Man or Dune. Even Henry's search for release and fulfillment in the bizzare world of Eraserhead is more classical and storybook-like than the Girl's nightmare. Like Highway's Fred, Drive's Diane, and EMPIRE's Nikki, the Girl is in a place of torment, but unlike those adult protagonists, she hasn't done anything to deserve such (psychic) pain. In this, The Exorcist's Regan MacNeil and the Girl are kin: they are innocents violated by powerful forces for reasons they cannot comprehend.