The ABC’s of David Lynch’s early short films, beginning with “The Alphabet”

By on October 31, 2015

If you’re still awake in the dead of night after your Halloween parties have all died down tonight, beginning at 2:45am ET early tomorrow morning, November 1, 2015, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is airing a David Lynch Short Film Marathon, showing films that rarely get broadcast on TV, if ever, including Six Men Getting Sick (1966), The Alphabet (1968), The Grandmother (1970), The Amputee, Version 1 (1970), The Amputee, Version 2 (1974), and Premonition Following an Evil Deed (1995), followed by the complete series of David Lynch’s “DumbLand,” comprised of eight crudely-animated cartoons, written, directed and voiced by director David Lynch in 2002. Have a look at this post we did back in July.

Original Post: The good folks at Dangerous Minds reminded us today that while we’re all waiting for the Showtime cable channel’s re-boot of Twin Peaks,” one of our very favorite shows ever — we learned late last month that the third season of the TV series is expanding from nine to eighteen episodes but isn’t expected now until 2017 — we can always go back over Lynch’s career, starting back at the beginning and re-examining everything he’s ever made, beginning with “The Alphabet.”

There was an even earlier film, however, made while attending the Pennsylvanian Academy of Fine Arts in 1967, called “Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times),” which Lynch has described as “57 seconds of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit.”

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“Six Men” was fully animated, showing a set of heads throwing up and catching fire, and played on an endless loop. Lynch has said he wanted to make a film in which he could see one of his paintings move — he’d begun as a visual artist prior to ever holding a camera — and he had purchased the cheapest 16mm camera he could find in order to experiment, taking over one of the abandoned upper rooms of the Academy as a working space. He spent $200 of his own money, and was assisted by his friend Jack Fisk, who would later become a quite famous art director and production designer, working with some of the top directors in the business.

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Jack Fisk and David Lynch, 1967

Here’s the result:

Lynch played the film on a loop at the Academy’s annual end-of-year exhibit, where it shared joint first prize with a painting by Noel Mahaffey.

David Lynch with film reels, ca. 1966 70Photo: C. K. Williams

The four-minute experimental film“The Alphabet” came next, and this was the first time David Lynch shot live-action footage, in 1968, although it can’t really be called a narrative film, per se. According to this official website entry, it cost about $1000 in production costs, which he obtained from a commission from one of his fellow students, the wealthy H. Barton Wasserman, who offered him the money after having seen “Six Men” — Wasserman must have wanted an equally strange film he could show as a permanent installation at his home whenever weirdos dropped by for freak-out parties (okay, we’re guessing about that last part).

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Lynch says he spent almost half of the money — $478.28 — on a second-hand Bolex camera, the “camera of his dreams,” and used the remaining funds to make “The Alphabet,” mixing animation with live action. Lynch even wrote a tune, “Alphabet Song” for the film, which was sung by Robert Chadwick.

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Wikipedia’s entry for the short film describes “The Alphabet” this way: “The film starred Lynch’s wife Peggy as a character known as The Girl, who chants the alphabet to a series of images of horses before dying at the end by hemorrhaging blood all over her bed sheets. Adding a sound effect, Lynch used a broken Uher tape recorder to record the sound of his baby daughter Jennifer crying, creating a distorted sound that Lynch felt to be particularly effective. Later describing what had inspired him, Lynch stated that “Peggy’s niece was having a bad dream one night and was saying the alphabet in her sleep in a tormented way. So that’s sort of what started The Alphabet going. The rest of it was just subconscious.”

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Lynch had married Peggy Reavey in 1967 and their daughter Jennifer was born in 1968, and it’s fairly safe to say that “The Alphabet” is a weird film, sure, but it’s probably not any weirder than, say, “The Grandmother”:

“The Grandmother” came about because, much like we told you in our recent epic Terrence Malick post, Lynch had heard that the American Film Institute (AFI) was accepting applications for their inaugural class, offering undergrad filmmakers a chance to get a master’s degree in film.  AFI was founded in 1967 as a national arts organization to train filmmakers and preserve America’s vanishing film heritage. The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities recommended creating AFI as a nonprofit “to enrich and nurture the art of film in America” with initial funding from the NEA, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Ford Foundation.

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Lynch, like Malick, and another first year classmate, Paul Schrader, enrolled at the AFI Conservatory and his application to the school was accepted after he sent in a screenplay for “The Grandmother,” along with a 16mm print of “The Alphabet.”

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Lynch, then just 22 years old, has said he was initally sorry he had contacted AFI and sent them his film, seeing the list of first-round grant applicants, and later remarking that he was “so embarrassed that I even appliedm” as he learned the others were are older, established filmmakers — and even they were getting turned down. AFI’s director, George Stevens Jr., has said that the grant-applications committee kept stacking the submitted films into categorical piles, and that when they had finished, there was one that didn’t fit. It was Lynch’s “The Alphabet.”

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Lynch has said that AFI’s director had called him at home and asked if he could make the $7,118-budgeted film that he had proposed for $5000. Lynch said “You got it,” and they offered him the grant (they later granted him the additional $2,200 that he had requested so that he could finish the film).

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Lynch made the thirty-four minute film, “The Grandmother,” along with help from his wife Peggy, and both Robert Chadwick and Alan R. Splet providing sound effects (Splet also helped with sound editing), and a band called Tractor doing the music and music effects. The more ambitious short film featured four actors this time — Richard White as the Boy (Mike), Dorothy McGinnis as the Grandmother, Virginia Maitland as the Mother, and Robert Chadwick as the Father — and like the others Lynch had made, combined both animation and live-action.

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“The Grandmother” was screened all over the U.S. and Europe, winning prizes at film festivals in Atlanta, San Francisco, and the Bellevue Film Festival, where Lynch was singled out for making a film that unlike so many of the other young filmmaker’s entries had nothing to do with the Vietnam War or attacks against the establishment, but instead had addressed universal human themes, “the experiences of growing up and needing love that are common to us all,” according to festival juror Sheldon Renan, who thought that certain scenes in Lynch’s film revealed that the filmmaker had shown “great skill and taste.”

Lynch’s next film, like “The Alphabet,” would further explore the idea of domestic life at home with a new wife and a crying baby.  It would be his feature-length debut, called Eraserhead.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.