“History is laughing at you, because you haven’t learned anything from it”
There is an image very early on in this film that burned itself right into my brain, from captured 8 mm footage of one of the first Teenage Jesus and the Jerks shows. As the band warms up in the background, frontwoman Lydia Lunch turns her gaze on the camera and just stares, her face twisted into a sneer laced with genuine contempt. And she holds it for a small eternity, as if everybody watching has been judged and found wanting.
There’s something intoxicating about being in the presence of someone who genuinely could not give a fuck about how she is received. Her indifference to outside reception, her outright antagonism, her utter restlessness (Teenage Jesus was only the first of many bands and projects she was to unleash on an unsuspecting world)… above all else, she is true to herself, and true to her mode of expression, whatever it may be at any given time. And as showcases go, Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over makes for one Hell of an experience.
Director Beth B, another veteran of the No Wave scene, has known Lunch for 40 years, having cast her in the East Village cult noir Vortex, knows her subject well enough to simply present her as is. For all the talking heads that prostrate themselves in well-earned worship, the most electric moments are the ones we spend in the presence of Lunch herself, as few people can articulate herself better than herself.
And so the movie itself is decidedly unadorned; B knows that the easiest thing to do, and the smart thing to do, would be to simply set Lunch in front of a camera and simply let her talk, and it is to the films credit that that’s pretty much exactly what they do. Yeah, there are the typical talking head interviews where admiration and influence is expressed (and an amusing, out of nowhere animated sequence with a cameo by Thurston Moore). But this is not hagiography… though it could be confused for such given all the fawning of prostrated Art Scene Men such as Moore, Bob Bert, and JG Thirlwell.
Instead, it is a complex portrait of a relentless fighter who wields her art like a dagger, and will never run out of enemies as long as her sense of outrage exists… all while being all too aware that the damage that shaped her is a weapon that’s pointed at both ends.
There is no shortage of live footage in display here (It’s always a joy to see the New York of my youthful nightmares, the bombed out Hell-state that bred rats and artists in equal measure), and though the footage never lingers for long it’s more than enough to make it obvious just how much Lunch is a true creature of the stage. Not in the sense of being a born entertainer (entertainment is not the mission), but when Lunch unleashes yet another incisive, mordant screed, she carries herself with the fiery conviction of a brimstone breathing preacher man of the old school. The only one who can save you from yourself… but is just as inclined to point and laugh.
The Stage is a Pulpit, The Stage is a Crucible.
Attack and Release.
Lunch makes no bones about anger and violence being her animating forces. And shows no small amount of wisdom about the benefits and drawbacks of that reality. But the glimpse behind the scenes of her tour with new band Retrovirus gives us the other side of Lunch, the freewheeling, occasionally goofy grand dame of scene who muses on how good rocker boys smell and takes pride in her ability to give good haircuts. Her fellow band members, mostly clean cut, shockingly young seeming little boys, seem equal parts in awe of and terrified of her sheer presence. And for her part, she acts as equal parts guru, imp and vixen. At one moment she’ll marvel at how well-groomed her bassist is; the next, she’ll have them standing by uncomfortably while she has an audience member feel under her skirt to check if singing the last song made gave her an orgasm.
And it’s kind of impossible not to bring that sort of thing up, because there is no talking about Lydia Lunch without addressing her powerful sexual presence.
“A Successful Predator”
When the subject of your documentary is someone who describes herself as “walking pornography” (and proceeds to make a very strong argument as to the accuracy of her self-assessment), inevitably a certain amount of screen time will need to be invested into investigating her sexual history. She makes no bones about her appetites, and how they are rooted in her own damage. And though what we see here is pretty glancing compared to her impressively vulgar memoir Paradoxia, there’s something bracing about the matter of fact way she addresses the complicated nature of that.
A not insignificant portion of the film is dedicated to Right Side Of My Brain, her first of many collaborations with the gleefully grimy No Wave sleaze merchant Richard Kern (who looks way dweebier than I ever pictured him, go figure), and while the film predictably leaves it up to the viewer to form their own opinion on the rightness or wrongness of her sexual exploits and self-exploitation, it cannot be said that she’s not expressing that aspect of herself for anyone but herself. And that there’s a world of difference between being unapologetic and being
And this is clear from the start: the film begins with a anecdote that starts out foreboding, immediately becomes perverse and horrific, and ends with an equally perverse epiphany regarding the nature of power. And it feels ruefully appropriate that what would be a defining traumatic event for most people would become a teachable moment in the world of Lydia Lunch.
The film finds present day Lunch in a place of acceptance (though contentment is clearly a long ways off), and it’s a fascinating thing to see the girl of the past alongside the woman of the future, her snotty youthful voice transformed into a creaking, leathery croak, vocal chords scarred and stretched from a lifetime spent screaming back at the abyss.
“My language is not silence; My language is the scream”
I’m reluctant to go too much into the various stories and anecdotes that get told, as it’s difficult to do them justice here. But there’s a moment that feels very telling in terms of who she is and how she approaches life; late in the film, after certain extraordinarily bleak revelations about the origins of her anger are revealed, she is seen onstage, reciting a spoken word poem that, while the subject is not explicitly stated, seems very easy to interpret as a rant against Harvey Weinstein. And if that’s the case, then her attitude towards the victims could be seen as… less than sympathetic. But not necessarily in the way one might expect. And that the crowd cheers in response makes for an altogether unsettling moment.
This is immediately followed by a clip of her talking about where she really places the blame, and as ever, it’s a more thoughtful take than the previous, willfully combative scene would have you believe.
So it goes with Lydia Lunch.
Bu for all the aggression, it is striking that the one moment where the sense of anger and defiance gives way to something else is the brief moment where she muses on the violence of war, and the fury is, ever so briefly, replaced with a deep sadness; that for all the personal examples she’s experienced of human cruelty, she seems genuinely unable to comprehend the existential violence at the heart of society itself, and how we can go on calling it a “civilization”
As very much an interested outsider, I couldn’t say if the material here contains anything revelatory to those already familiar with Lunch and her legend. To be sure, it’s in no way a comprehensive view of her body of work, more of an rough guide. But in the end, it’s not really about any kind of history or wide sweeping statement in the first place; at bottom, it’s a simple movie about a very complex, all-too human artist using every weapon at their disposal to fight the demons, both within and without,
And if you’re wondering how it all ends, you might want to go back and reread the title.