FF2 Guest post by Megan Hennessey
*Content warning: Brief mention of child sexual abuse.
Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over pulled me in with the promise of indulging in a feminist of punk music history. Directed by Beth B, the film captures the eloquent rage of Lydia Lunch — and the problems of patriarchy— and asks us: Why aren’t you mad too?
The documentary opens with No Wave icon Lydia Lunch, the “queen of that part of the underground” music scene, describing a moment from her childhood: on a dark, snowy night, a stranger gave her a ride home. He brought her to an empty park and, with a gun to her head, made her lick the tires. This story sets the tone for the documentary-watching experience: Lunch always pays attention to power dynamics between herself and the men around her, the toxic masculinity that dominates —and destroys—the world. She talks about coming to New York to make the “angriest, most bitter music” she could at the age of sixteen.
The War is Never Over then jets us on a quick tour through Lunch’s early music career as the frontwoman for Teenage Jesus & the Jerks and 8 Eyed Spy. Interspersed with interviews from Lunch and other icons — from bands like Sonic Youth and L7 — are clips from a 1996 spoken word performance from her album Conspiracy of Women. Lunch’s early work isn’t interested in softness. Instead, she’s unleashing her anger at the crowd. As one of the interviewees observes: “Why not be willing to have a fistfight right there?”
The documentary hits its stride halfway through its run time. Filmmaker Beth B includes clips from Lunch’s Right Side of My Brain video, an in-your-face sexual experience of Lunch from 1984. The clips she includes from The Right Side of My Brain are lyrical and evocative and pluck the string between sex and power. She created videos where she relishes in her sexuality. Her eyes train knowingly on the camera as she strips: She knows you’re watching, and she’s not going to stop. “I am sex,” she says to the camera while rehearsing with Retrovirus for a 2017 tour. She continues: “I’m walking pornography.”
I’m most fascinated listening to Lunch self-reflecting. She shows a deep understanding of how an early traumatic sexual experience cemented the connection between sex and power. This understanding would fit in within a modern-day BDSM scene. “Sometimes, when you need the smallest, most tender action, attention, and you don’t get it, you will look for the biggest monster in the room. What you need is the tenderness you were denied as a child… because trauma is greedy. You can’t calm me down; I’m going to fuck you up.”
Her take-control attitude feels like a photo negative of the typical messages given to women. For her, the way to get the upper hand was to use her sexuality fearlessly and unapologetically. Yet, Lunch’s self-reflection falls short at times that are achingly human and show that processing trauma is not a straightforward task. For her, she externalized her trauma through blatant anger and aggression, refusing to internalize or self-blame.
However, at times, Lunch’s sexuality becomes claustrophobic. There’s no way to disengage with her sexuality, even if I want to. (I can already hear her rebuttal: “I go beyond what normal people would tolerate.”) An example of this: While performing on stage, she stops and speaks directly to one of the men crowding the stage. “Jesus Christ, I think I just came… touch me and see if I came.” The guy in the front row takes her up on the offer and sticks his hand up her dress.
I’m not interested in making Lunch a perfect feminist hero. I want there to be space in the conversation, both in this documentary and outside of it, to hold room for messy, imperfect growth. . . and all types of feminist. But, after watching this documentary, I did streak on thick lines of eyeliner and dark lipstick. And I sneered as I walked. Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over gave me permission to be furious at the world. And goddamn, did it feel good.
Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over opens Wednesday, June 30th, at the IFC Center. For more information and tickets, check out: www.ifccenter.com/films/lydia-lunch-the-war-is-never-over/.
© Megan Hennessey (6/28/21) – Special for FF2 Media.
CREDITS AND PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Lydia Lunch and her band (2019). Photo Credits: Kathleen Fox.
Middle Photo: Lydia Lunch movie poster (2019).
Bottom Photo: Lydia Lunch. Photo Credits: Jasmine Hurst.