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Interview with Grace Lee of “What’s So Great About That?”

Cæmeron Crain recently chatted with Grace Lee of the YouTube channel “What’s So Great About That?” about her interest in philosophy, language, art, what it all means, and how it relates to David Lynch. We hope you enjoy!


CC: Let me say, first of all, that you say towards the end of this video that you think the world might be about saturated with videos about Lynch, or something like that, and that you aren’t sure that you’ll make any more. I just want to say that you should, since the ones you have are truly excellent. But, your video series covers a lot of different things beyond David Lynch. Would you like to say anything about the idea behind “What’s So Great About That?”—what motivated you to start doing it, how you think about what you’re doing, etc., before we get into focusing on the Lynch stuff?

GL: Thank you very much! If there’s an idea that I feel would be best explored through Lynch’s work, then I’m certainly not ruling it out, but I’d only make videos when I feel I have something new to contribute and there aren’t many unturned stones when it comes to David Lynch.

A lot of my essays stem from the excitement of exploration, discovery and making connections, like a jigsaw puzzle. The channel has become a place where I can try and collect these ideas and think about things more intensely.

I decided to start the channel during my final year at university as I was completing my dissertation. It suddenly struck me that I wasn’t going to have a reason to write anymore, so I decided to create one. The video part came from my fan video hobby as a teenager. I find video editing quite therapeutic, which is why I tend to include a lot of transitions and ‘cut out’ style editing, even though it isn’t necessary. Video essays seemed like a great way to combine these two things that I wanted to keep in my life.

CC: No, I think it’s great, and that the videos are really well put together. Nothing struck me as ‘unnecessary’ at least. Congratulations on completing your dissertation. What was that about?

GL: It was actually about translation and remaking in contemporary painting and horror cinema. The ‘English As She Is Spoke‘ phrasebook that I reference in the David Lynch video formed part of my introduction, but Lynch didn’t feature in my dissertation at all. It was called ‘Objects in the Mirror may be Closer than they Appear: Complicating the roles of creator and spectator through practices of post-production’, which is as convoluted as dissertation titles tend to be.

CC: Indeed. Very cool. Even if you didn’t mention him there, that does seem to relate to the video that caught our attention initially, which was the one on David Lynch and the “treachery of language.”

The relation between words and their objects has been something philosophers and the like have worried about at least since Plato, but I think it would be fair to say that philosophy of language really took off in the 20th century, but in ways that vary a lot in both approach and content. Are there any thinkers that you thought about bringing into your discussion of Lynch but didn’t for whatever reason? Or, at the end of the day, do you think that Lynch’s approach to language is perhaps novel?

GL: While I do sometimes bring in quotes from philosophers, it’s always as a part of this collage of references I like to build, and I pick the quotes that I find most interesting. In this case I was more intrigued by Pedro Carolino’s translations, Allison Katz’ dance critic anecdote and Robert Morris’ dream journal. It’s finding connections in these more obscure places that I find most exciting. They also tend to be more unique to my style and interests. One of the best things about sharing these online is how people bring in their own references in the comments, and this is where discussions of Lacan or Derrida can come in. But everyone has their own niche interest they can draw from, and there are a lot of great quotes and references from more unusual sources that have been posted.

I certainly wouldn’t say Lynch’s approach is novel, but I think it’s one you’d see a lot more in fine art or music than film. I watched an artist talk with Markus Vater last week, and he begins the talk with a kind of disclaimer about how he went into visual art precisely because explaining things with words didn’t come naturally to him. And yet a lot of his paintings and drawings have words in them, when that isn’t a common feature for a painting to have. It’s the difference between using words to explain art, and using them as art itself (the talk is online here).

CC: I’ll have to check that out. And yeah, Lacan and Derrida were two names that came to mind for me; there definitely seems to be something we could grapple with in terms of thinking about floating signifiers, or signifiers that point to other signifiers without landing on a signified that would end the series… Am I getting too abstruse? Anyway, I find it interesting that you mention people drawing from niche interests in relation to all of this. It got me thinking a lot about Gilles Deleuze, for instance. Are there any other associations people have made that you have found particularly interesting, or noteworthy?

GL: Getting too abstruse is another reason not to delve too deeply into these philosophers in the video, haha. Their theories often take a lot of time to explain, and those explanations tend to not be any fun for me. Deleuze is another recurring character!
One person (named Collin Shepard) made a comparison with ‘defamiliarisation’ in Russian formalism, providing this quote:

“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” – Viktor Shklovsky

Another (Leo Cookman, working on a Lacan video for Wisecrack) recommended reading Don Paterson’s ‘Orpheus’, which I’ve squirreled away for use in a possible future essay.

CC: Yeah, I am always thinking about applying Deleuze to Lynch, but worry about getting too caught up in explaining Deleuze – probably best that you avoid getting lost in the weeds too much in the videos. That connection to Russian formalism and the idea of “making strange” is interesting to think about, though. Thanks for that.

So, to focus on Lynch, it occurs to me that he does use language in his films — he doesn’t work in silent film, after all — so how do you think that works for him? If he distrusts or dislikes written language as a means of communication but is forced to use it, how does he make it enigmatic the way his images and sounds frequently are?  Do you think this relates at all to what we might call Lynchian humor?

GL: It was Lynch’s prolific and notable use of language in combination with his apparent distrust of it that made the use of words in his work seem like such an interesting topic for discussion. And it’s interesting precisely because he isn’t forced to use written language, he chooses to. I think one way these words remain enigmatic is that they’re an expression of feeling rather than thought or description or direct narrative function. They can create impressions without having to fit everything together.

CC: Right, that’s interesting, but it seems to me like you are thinking more about his paintings and the like there, or early short films like The Alphabet, which you discuss in a really interesting way. I guess I was trying to push the question a bit toward thinking about his later films. Insofar as they are “talkies” he is sort of forced there, right? This is what led me to start thinking about the way his dialogue can make me laugh – it’s not like the way other things make me laugh, so I wondered if we might be able to get at something here.

GL: Ah, I see! I still think using dialogue is a choice though. Although I do like the idea of a producer standing over him saying “you’d better be writing dialogue, David!”, and there is truth in that. I do get what you mean with this being more of a staple of modern cinema/television.  I’d forgotten just how funny Gordon Cole was before re-watching some of the Twin Peaks episodes he was in, or just how funny Twin Peaks is in general. Like Gordon’s misunderstandings, I think a lot of the comedy in Twin Peaks comes from things not quite aligning with expectations. That gap can be exploited for humour as much as horror.

CC: Yeah, I like that.

You talk about the way Lynch titles his paintings etc. as being reminiscent of the art history tradition of naming the artwork after what it depicts. Do you think he is subverting that tradition in some way, or do you see him as right in line with it? Or, how do you think about these titles relating to these works?

GL: I think it’s possibly a joke on how words are usually used in relation to images. As a translation, an unnecessary label or indifferent afterthought. It reminds me of a series of paintings by Dana Schutz called ‘Frank from Observation‘ (the qualifier ‘from observation’ being common practice in naming paintings that were done, as you’d guess, from observation), which featured an imaginary man named Frank, along with a detailed back story, who was painted from imagination, not observation.
Lynch’s titles aren’t necessarily subversive but I do think they draw on this naming tradition in a playful manner. It’s easy enough to call a painting of fruit ‘Still Life with Fruit’, but how do you describe something that isn’t entirely representational?

DS_FrankAtNight_L.jpg

CC: Yeah, I guess that is precisely what I was thinking about. It’s not straightforward. And then I guess I start wondering if it ever was. The title purports to tell you what you are looking at, but why do you need some text to tell you what you are looking at? I guess this is why ‘subversive’ occurred to me, but maybe you’re closer to the mark in calling it ‘playful’ – this isn’t Magritte’s “Treachery of Images” but something more in-between; playing with that space, or something like that?

GL: Exactly! I’ve always felt like a painting without a proper title was a missed opportunity. A lot of these descriptive titles just end up as a labeling system for collectors. And Lynch has a fair few ‘untitled’ pieces, but I think the text within the painting serves the same function as a title.

CC: A painting without a title that contains text that functions like a title; that’s great. The way you talk in the video about a kind of divorce between the naming of a thing and the thing itself got me thinking about Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” – do you think this is a fair connection to make? I guess I don’t really know what else to say about this, but am wondering if you do.

GL: I think Joseph Kosuth is certainly a fair connection to make as, at least to me, that work seems to be similarly concerned with opening up the association between the name of a thing and what that thing can be. Kosuth provides three entry points into what a chair can be, which I think is just a more direct exploration of ideas Lynch engages with in his approach to naming.

Joseph-Kosuth.-One-and-Three-Chairs-469x353.jpg

CC: Right, and it always seemed to me to call into question how we think about a thing and representations of it; through language, or through images. You definitely got me thinking more deeply about how Lynch gets up to the same kind of thing. I don’t know if it is the most direct connection to make, but I love the Fish Kit. Can we say anything more about the Fish Kit?

GL: Man, do I love ‘Fish Kit’! It’s the perfect combination of sadness, grotesquery and childlike wonder that defines a lot of Lynch’s work. As well as the idea of not being able to ‘reassemble’ something, the deliberate messiness of the image makes me think of a mistake that you can’t take back. Also that you can’t give something its life back once you’ve taken it away, even if you want to, and I think this relates to Lynch’s reluctance to explain his films. You can never take it back. You can change your mind, you can deny what you said, but you can’t un-say it.

CC: Right. Once you talk about a thing, it changes how you understand the thing, as he says. I have always had this impression of Lynch as an auteur who is fully onboard with the idea of the “death of the author” you get from Roland Barthes, for example; like he doesn’t want to be viewed as the authority when it comes to the meaning of his own work. The fish kit seems to sort of symbolize that for me – I could take the fish apart for you and explain how it works, but then it’ll be dead.

fish_kit.jpeg

GL: Yeah! A got a few comments on the video that I think misunderstood the distinction between Lynch explaining his work and others offering explanations and interpretations. I tried to make it clear at the end that it’s actually the thoughts and experiences of the audience that kind of completes the work. If you or I say something about the work it’s just an idea, but if Lynch says something it’s taken as fact. His words have much more power in this situation than anyone else’s.

CC: You mention Dennis Lim’s thought about Lynch that “The impression is of language used less for meaning than for sound. To savor the thingness of words is to move away from their imprisoning nature.” This seems to me to get close to some accounts I have read of the language of schizophrenics and the like – what do we make of word salad, e.g.? Or, I guess, to keep it a bit lighter, this got me to thinking about Lewis Carroll, and in particular poems like Jabberwocky. Any further thoughts about this idea of Lynch using language more for sound than meaning? Because it’s not like meaning is totally absent, right?

GL: I don’t know enough about schizophrenia to be able to comment on that, but, in relation to sound vs meaning, there’s a quote from ‘Lynch on Lynch‘ that sheds some more light on that:

“The words in the paintings are sometimes important to make you start thinking about what else is going on in there. And a lot of times, the words excite me as shapes, and something’ll grow out of that.”

I think ‘shape’ here has the same function as sound in spoken words.

Lewis Caroll is a great comparison, especially his poetry. The language in ‘Jabberwocky’ was explicitly used for its sound rather than meaning, as the latter is generally absent in the invented words. But the sounds create their own meaning.

Lynch’s use of language seems to have an affinity with poetry. I recently explored the nature of poetry and prose in an essay on Peter S. Beagle’s ‘The Last Unicorn‘, particularly how this novel seems closer to the former despite being written in the latter. I think the same is true for Lynch’s words. Joyce Carol Oates differentiated the two as:
“Prose, it might be speculated, is discourse; poetry ellipsis. Prose is spoken aloud; poetry overheard. The one is presumably articulate and social, a shared language, the voice of “communication”; the other is private, allusive, teasing, sly … a kind of witchcraft unfathomable to ordinary minds.”

CC: It seems to me that this thought about the “thingness of words” could relate to the weirdness of certain exchanges in Lynch’s work. For whatever reason, I am thinking in particular of the Phillip Jeffries scenes in The Return – there is this strange way where it feels uncertain whether he is really responding to the questions he is being asked, and so on; it feels like he is, but also maybe isn’t… Any thoughts about how Lynch’s relation to language perhaps feeds into ambiguity, or about this scene/other scenes where the dialogue maybe feels a bit “off”?

GL: There are a lot of scenes in Lynch’s work where the set up seems to be removed from the response. I decided not to talk about Rabbits in the video (even though it’s one of my favourites in the Lynch canon), but it’s probably the most direct example of this. Taking a well-established call and response situation, the conventions of a sit-com audience, but completely divorcing these responses from what they’re apparently responding to. It’s like each participant, each rabbit character and the audience, are all on their own individual scripts. Things aren’t quite lining up, but no one knows how else to respond, so they just follow the script.

This might relate to the disconnect between what one person says and what another person understands, or as an indication of the space between one idea and another. Things left unsaid or unseen.

rabbits.jpeg

CC: Yes, Rabbits, that’s great. And a great example. I seem to recall somewhere Lacan maybe said something about all communication being based on misunderstanding, or something like that, but I don’t have the reference, and maybe that is neither here nor there.

GL: Yes! “The very foundation of interhuman discourse is misunderstanding.” (thank you Google)

CC: Well, there you go. The last time I tried to Google something I thought Lacan said, it did not go so well, but that’s another story. [N.B. The quote Grace mentions is from Seminar III]

One of the things that really struck me in the video was the stuff about lip-syncing, and the notion of it creating this kind of separation between voice and body. When it comes to Rebekah Del Rio’s scene in Mulholland Drive, you bring this together with thoughts about translation – from original to cover, English to Spanish, etc. – which I thought was fascinating, but I got to thinking also about the fact that it really is her singing that song, right? Do you have any thoughts about how this idea of lip-syncing to a recording of oneself might fit in to your account? Or, would you perhaps like to elaborate a bit on this line of thought about what relates lip-syncing to worries about translation?

GL: I think lip-syncing could be a whole essay unto itself; the unnatural dissonance of dubbing, the off-putting delay of an out of synch recording, the association of inauthenticity that comes from a faked live performance. These are all things that remind the audience that what they’re seeing is performative, ingenuine. It is indeed really her singing the song and lip-syncing to your own voice definitely adds another layer to the discussion. It’s essentially performing as yourself.

To bring up The Last Unicorn again (sorry, it’s been on my mind), there’s a chapter where the unicorn is captured by a carnival. But humans have forgotten how to see unicorns so in order for them to recognise the unicorn for what she is, she is given a fake horn. I’ve always found this idea to be deeply troubling without really being able to pinpoint why, but I think part of it is the idea of performing as yourself. That what’s seen on the outside might not match the inside, that people could look right at you and be deceived into believing something else, unless you’re given a horn they can see.

But to lip-synch to yourself, it takes you own voice and places it somewhere outside of you. Another place, another time. And there’s a long tradition of the voice being linked to the soul, as well as to power. To fight for you position is to ‘make your voice heard’, and the oppressed are often said to be without a voice. I think all these associations are present in this scene. It raises questions of agency, truth and the power of spoken word (or sung word, in this case).

rebekah del rio.jpg

CC: That’s really interesting. It is striking to me that you said “performing as yourself” twice, and both times I wanted to hear “performing yourself” – it is a minor difference, grammatically, I know, but it seems like it might be a bigger one here. Are we talking about trying to represent some kind of inner being behind the mask, or is it masks all the way down? You don’t have to respond to that; it’s just a question all of this is leading me to ponder.

GL: That’s an interesting distinction! I think these kinds of grammatical structures and word choices can reveal a lot about the root of an idea. I don’t know why I used it, but the ‘as’ seems right to me.

CC: Fair enough. I just got to thinking, since we are talking about language, how sometimes these small differences can be conceptually sort of big when you think about it, and I can nerd out about stuff like that. I recall reading an essay that spent a lot of time on the use of a colon.

GL: I’m the same! Small details can lead to exciting things.

CC: Are you familiar with this Italian phrase, Traduttore, traditore?

GL: I’d never heard that phrase, but it’s certainly applicable!

CC: It appears that the first video you put out in this series was about Lost Highway, is that right? I wanted to ask you briefly about that, because I feel like there is some similarity, or analogy, or resonance – whatever you want to call it – between your thoughts about images there and what we have been talking about in relation to language.

What I thought was really interesting was how you raised questions about perspective, or distrust of perspective in relation to the film. Whose perspective is this? And so on. Would it make sense to you to suggest something like a “treachery of the image” in a way that might parallel these thoughts about the treachery of language we have been discussing?

GL: Yes, Lost Highway was my first video. One of the reasons I did the second David Lynch video when I did was because it would mark 1 year of the channel, although the video got delayed so it ended up being 1 year 2 months. I agree that there’s a parallel between the two. I even named the second video ‘The Treachery of Language’ in reference to ‘The Treachery of Images‘ by René Magritte, a painting that I talk about in the first video. I tend to cycle back to the same ideas a lot. It’s been interesting to find out which ideas preoccupy me the most.

the-treachery-of-images

CC: You did do that! Sorry, I guess I confused where you brought up Magritte, or thought I was drawing a connection you pretty explicitly drew yourself. The perspective thing seems to me to cut a bit deeper, though. Do you have any thoughts about the perspective from which we are seeing Lost Highway? Is it no one’s? Or multiple?

GL: No, that’s fine! I never know where I’ve said what, I had to go and check! The treachery of language title was more just a joke with myself.

I don’t think there’s a definite answer as to whose perspective Lost Highway is from, which is part of what makes watching it such a jarring experience. What seems to differentiate a distrust of language from this potential distrust of images is recognition of perspective and subjectivity. We’re much more likely to distrust something we read or hear than something we see. Perspective is built into the language of words, but less so with the language of images. In my teens, I went through a phase of watching a lot of true crime documentaries. There was one instance where a theatrical reenactment led me to believe a certain version of events. When it was revealed to be a false account, I thought “but I saw it!”, even though I was perfectly aware that wasn’t true. I think if I had just heard the account it would have registered as subjective, but it’s surprisingly easy to be taken in by a false image.

CC: That’s great, yeah, even in a show like True Detective when the narration doesn’t match the image, we tend to believe what we see (although we are probably supposed to, there). True crime re-enactments are an interesting connection to make, for sure.

Want to tell our readers anything about where they can expect “What’s So Great About That?” to go next? Or, any other projects or anything you want to take the opportunity to plug?

GL: They can probably expect to see more contemporary art references sneaking in, haha. I generally like to keep my topics a surprise, but my next video is about birds. Particularly, birds in horror movies.

My twitter is https://twitter.com/whatssograce. I rarely tweet but at least I can promise not to clog up your feed!

I also made an animated short film recently. It’s not available online yet but there’s a clip and an interview here.

CC: Great. I’ll have to check that out. And I hope everyone goes and checks out your videos and so on. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us!

GL: Thank you very much for asking me to talk. It’s been a lot of fun!


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Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is also one half of Drink Full and Descend, a podcast that started in relation to Twin Peaks, but has now moved beyond it, and has begun to explore Surrealism. He lives in Brooklyn and has a cat.

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