60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: "Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over" is a revealing look at a confrontational avant-garde icon


Lydia Lunch performs on stage with her band in a photo by Kathleen Fox

Lydia Lunch photo by Kathleen Fox

The title of director Beth B's film Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over derives from an archival performance clip in which Lunch, a confrontational New York City no-wave musician, performance artist, and icon, dissects the endless masculine predilection toward war. "You want to go on a suicide mission? Go on a suicide mission," Lunch says. "One man, one bomb, and leave the innocent women, the innocent children, and the innocent male civilians out of it. It's not my war."

But the title takes on greater significance as B and Lunch delve deeper into a very different kind of never-ending battle: Lunch's efforts to grapple with her childhood sexual abuse and resulting trauma. They take their time getting there, ping-ponging in a free-associative format between topics including Lunch's various musical projects, activism, and use of sex as a weapon and instrument of subversion. 

Now 62, Lunch is as much a force of nature as ever, rattling off poetic, angry, profane, and blackly funny rants with unfettered savagery directed toward the patriarchy and other institutions of oppression. "Lydia is a fuckin' doctor," musician Carla Bozulich says in one of the film's many interviews with Lunch's kindred artistic spirits. "Her kind of medicine is just a punch in the fuckin' face."

Accordingly, Lunch is an outstanding documentary subject, eminently comfortable in front of a camera and always ready with a memorably aggressive line. For every outrageous joke and devastating political commentary that made it into the film, one can only wonder about all the likely golden material left on the cutting-room floor. 

But B's greatest achievement here is cracking through Lunch's aggressive veneer. Late in the film, Lunch details her father's abuse of her as a child, and it's all the more shocking to see the normally volatile, super-confident performer get choked up as she describes how she's used her art and her life to process those events. Lunch describes her preoccupation with war as a way to "battle the pains that trauma has inflicted upon [her] body."

"I have no idea why I'm obsessed with that shit and have to try to make some sense," she says. "Maybe then it just makes the war inside seem so much easier to deal with."

B and Lunch are longtime friends and collaborators, and their mutual respect and rapport comes across beautifully on screen in vulnerable moments like this as well as in less emotionally intense but similarly unvarnished ones. At one point Lunch puts B up to sniffing Lunch's bandmate, Tim Dahl, to confirm Lunch's assertion that he's one of the best-smelling people she knows.

Lunch and B's closeness and comfort with each other are what make The War Is Never Over such a special film, giving us a surprisingly intimate portrait of a performer who, for all her forthrightness and swagger, often holds an audience at arm's length.

But here, she and B invite us in to see what drives Lunch to protest and provoke.

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

"Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over" will screen March 25 at 11 pm at the State Theater as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF). Lunch will be in town for the screening and will also appear in a Penny Stamps Speaker Series lecture on March 24 at 5:30 pm at the Michigan Theater, an "Off the Screen!" presentation with Joseph Keckler, on March 25 at 1 pm at North Quad Space 2435 (free), and a spoken word performance opening AAFF's Films in Competition 8 program on March 25 at 11 pm at the Michigan Theater. Tickets are available here. Visit aafilmfest.org for the full schedule (March 22-27).