What's in a word?
A literal response to this almost obscure question would be letters. Letters make up words just as words make up these sentences. Now imagine a world where only one singular letter exists. Think for a moment. How would that affect one's interaction with the world, with society, and with themselves (besides a potentially limited ability to communicate effectively and efficiently)?
Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Black Maria Film Festival here at Princeton - an event kindly sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Consisting of various short form documentaries and experimental short films, this festival's aim was to "celebrate the short form in all its permutations for its artistic challenges, aesthetics, and substance." From a funereal-like procession through the post-Soviet streets of a Bulgarian village to a marvelously made visual rendition of Cortney Lamar Charleston 's poem "How Do You Raise A Black Child?", Black Maria tapped into fundamental and very real and chilling human experiences. In celebrating the unlimited creativity of the filmmaker, the festival celebrated humanity (the individual and collective experiences). These films raised questions, challenged pre-conceived ideas, reasoned towards truth, and, ultimately, conversed openly with the audience.
One film, appropriately titled "A", was not only experimental in style but fearless in its claim. I couldn't help but feel unsettled. As soon as the film ended and the credits started rolling, I could not figure out exactly why I felt this way. After discussing its premise and quite startling ending with my uncle (who actually came down for the festival and had invited me to accompany him), I was able to piece the puzzle together. Note: I give credit to my uncle for providing further insight into this film. The analysis that follows is a combination of his insight/interpretation and my extension/refinement of this insight. I would be remiss not to acknowledge my uncle for planting the seed to this article.
"A" by Ecuadorian filmmaker Joseph Houlberg is a monochromatic film that seeks to explore (though briefly) a world defined by a single letter - the eponymous A. The narration immediately introduces us to the protagonist: a seemingly simple dispassionate mailman. Simple he may be, he seems to have in his possession an artifact that undoubtedly exudes wonder and - perhaps - harnessed power. Less than five minutes into the film, the camera draws our attention to a pyramid that he removes from his mailbag. He examines it for a bit, turning it over and over in his hand, and we are given a brief opportunity to find comfort in our confusion. Perhaps this one item will drive the entire plot? Perhaps we will soon discover its importance? The rest of the film follows the man's routes from house to bar to house to deliver letters; the various addresses have different rotated orientations of the letter A. What is established at the outset of this film is the overt lack of dialogue. Not a single word is spoken. Communication occurs through grunting, laughing, facial expressiveness, and actions.The film and characters don't draw attention to that "quirk", however. We - the audience - accept it is as natural and forgivable.
While the mailman delivers his letters to their respective owners, a shady man stalks him not too far behind, hiding behind corners and lampposts at each opportunity. In the culminating scene, the protagonist leaves his mailbag and bike outside as he enters one of the houses. (I mean, if the owner of the house doesn't respond to my knocks, I totally think it's a wonderful and perfectly acceptable idea to enter, especially if the door is unlocked). To his horror, he catches his once beloved wife having intercourse with another man. He runs outside, struck with utter dismay, only to be drenched by a sudden downpour (talk about pathetic fallacy). He attempts to mount his bike and take off but fails - the tires have been punctured. Suddenly, the shady man runs into him, steals the pyramid-like artifact from his, and darts off in the opposite direction. Your classic chase scene ensues - they run down the street, through a church, and into an alleyway, where they finally face off. In his built-up distress and anger, the protagonist kicks the shady man in the crotch, takes the artifact, and escapes. At the end of the film, we find him sitting on a stoop, closely examining the pyramid-artifact. He shakes it: A sound. He shakes it harder: It grows louder. Then...he opens it. A bright light emmits form its depths, and we are shown its contents: letters. Ts and Is and Us and Bs. The sounds turn into voices - the voices of the letters. It's almost as if they're singing; it's certainly melodic. Before the credits roll, the man smiles gleefully and attempts to sound out the letter "I" (It's a Spanish film, so it's more like the long "e" sound; i.e. beet). Then we understand.
I had said before that the film establishes a lack of dialogue will be consistent throughout the rest of the film. It's not that this is a silent film - or that the characters see no need to express themselves through words - it is not that at all. They can speak; and in fact, they do speak. They communicate through the only way know how to: with the letter A. In anger and frustration, the protagonist screams (Aaaaaaa!). In the church, a choir passionately sings (AaaaaaaaaaAAAAaaaaaAAaaaa). In the bar, men laugh (Ha! Ha! Ha! minus the H). To us, it's just the letter A. To them, it's their language. That is all they know. They express themselves - their whole range of emotions: their anger, their agony, their amusement, their love, their praises - through the single letter A. Through this letter, they communicate their thoughts and navigate the world.... through this letter, they exist. What do I mean by that?
A single letter shapes their existence, their experiences, their perceptions. The letter A is the lens through which humanity sees out of. The protagonist finds his wife committing an act of adultery (Spanish: adulterio); he finds himself an adversary (adversario) in the shady thief or stalker (acosador), the pyramid mimics the shape of the A. In essence, this is a film about the power of language (How many times have you heard that argument before?) Going further, one of the main concerns of the film is how much/and to what degree are our lives shaped by language. If a language only had one letter, how would our perceptions change? This is a question of linguistics. The classic problem of linguistic relativity vs. linguistic determinism. How much does language shape or affect our understanding of the world? I believe this film explores an extreme case of linguistic determinism, which asserts language determines how one thinks and approaches the world.
There are indeed flaws to this view, however. If there exists only one letter - namely the letter A - then how could one understand the world "adultery" if it is clearly spelled with other letters in the alphabet? How could one conceptualize multiple ideas with one letter? Although there is no simple answer to those questions - after all, there exists no such language with only one letter or sign (please correct me if I'm wrong). This is an idea we cannot fathom. That does not matter, though. We don't have to fathom it, but the inhabitants of Houlberg's world certainly do. They live it. They breathe it. The exist in it. "A" defines their world.
Now, why should we care? What implications do these questions or insights have on our world? If we're looking at this from a linguistical standpoint, then it's important to consider how we fit in. After all, we all speak some type of language, don't we? As aforementioned, language may, in fact, affect how one sees the world. Yes, we're all human. We all have shared experiences, emotions, understandings, etc., but our native language may indeed play a role in how we deal with these experiences, emotions, understandings, etc. This is also true on a societal level. Depending on the rhetoric and language we grow up around, our views on the same matters may vary slightly or differently altogether. Sometimes it feels like we're speaking many different one-letter languages. If A defines my world and my approach to it, and B defines your world and your approach to it, then we have a problem. There is no way of understanding each other. I'm not saying differences in opinion and viewpoints should be discouraged. In fact, that's one of the most beautiful aspects of the human experience. I'm just saying that it may help to gather up the rest of the letters - to seek out the pyramid-artifact of talking-singing letters - so we can all piece together a common language for effective communication. Even with a common complete language, there will always be disagreement. At least with a full alphabet, we can make progress towards understanding and secure a safer and better future.
Language is beautiful, it is not monochromatic. It has the potential to express the totality of the human experience. It shapes us, it allows us to shape others. It lets us form bonds, it is the fundamental tool for learning, broadening our horizons, expanding our view of the world. If all you know and understand is "adultery" and "adversary," then it would do you good to learn the rest of the alphabet. For your sake. For the sake of future generations. A life defined by one letter is a life troubled and incomplete.