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Lydia Lunch in Black Box (1978)


By Yasi Salek

An appreciation of Lydia Lunch on film, and her collaborations with Beth B.

Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over plays as part of Sex, Money, and Power: Films By Beth B, available to watch At Home and In Theater.

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I (hand-wringing, spiraling, crying, throwing up) told my friend Chris that I was writing this essay about Lydia Lunch, and do you know what he said? He said, “Lydia is easy to write about if you don’t overthink it.” I don’t write much anymore because I do find it hard, and I do overthink it, but I chose to write this anyway because I love Lydia Lunch. I love Lydia Lunch in the way that I love Kathy Acker—their work is challenging and not something that I engage with often, or even always enjoyably, but I am glad it exists. Maybe even more than their work, I love any work about them. Anyway, to start out here, I wrote a few sentences about “my youth” (who cares) and how I found her (who cares) because we always start with ourselves, don’t we? But all that stuff is largely irrelevant because, really, if you were born before 1985 and had an interest in subculture that stemmed from an interest in monoculture (when the monoculture was Nirvana) then you ultimately found your way to Lydia Lunch.

I’m not going to use words like “unflinching” and “brave” because even if they’re accurate they miss the point: Lydia Lunch is special because she made her entire being into a confrontation. From the age of 16, when she left her hometown of Rochester, New Jersey, took a bus to New York City with no plan and no money, and then started one of the most influential No Wave bands, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, at just 17, she knew that we’re all doing theater all of the time, so we might as well make the most of the performance. This is perhaps depressing in the eyes of some, but never has it been truer than today. All-the-world’s-a-stage-core, if you will. From the first time that she took the stage with Teenage Jesus—hyper-sexualized and full of bile and fury, staccato guitar-playing punctuating the brilliant caterwaul delivery of her brutally evocative lyrics—she made damn sure that all eyes were glued to her. And it’s the fact that Lydia has always known how to weaponize her life’s performance that has set her apart.

Can we agree that bravery is worthless without self-awareness? You never get the sense that Lydia is catering to her audience—at once belly-exposed tender and fiercely defiant, she’s using it to feed herself, to throw her rage at, and suck back in, the discomfort it creates. She always, in her own words, “turned the knife outwards.” She has used multiple artistic mediums not as form but as frames to hang around herself.

Lydia Lunch is special because she made her entire being into a confrontation.

In cinema, particularly in the films that she has made with collaborators—most intimately her fellow New York Downtown artist and filmmaker Beth B (who once photographed Lydia’s vagina for a book of photos of vaginas that is sadly out of print), and most famously Richard Kern (who, after their first film collaboration, a 1985 vehicle for Lydia’s depraved sexual musings called The Right Side of My Brain, took the rap for her “misogyny” as well as his own)—you never feel that she is being directed. Even when she crops up in movies by other underground icons such as Vivienne Dick, Virginie Despentes, and Nick Zedd, she is never a vector for another artist’s vision: Lydia is unnatural, and you simply can’t stop watching her onscreen or on stage because you have no idea what she might do next. Much like the way that her music—made later with bands like Big Sexy Noise, Retrovirus, and as a solo act—eschews boring, typical things like melody, so too her film work tends to sidestep more conventional things like character development or plot.

Black Box (1978), a Beth B and Scott B film starring a very young Lydia in a snappy dominatrix get-up raises more questions: who is this baby-faced blond man? What did he do to make Lydia and her criminal gang so mad? What does she want to know? Who is responsible for her very cool haircut? We don’t get any explanation but as the mystery builds we get blasted with an irresistible hot gust of Lydia’s shrill fury, set to screeching noise “music,” that is intended to torment both her onscreen captive—who is blindfolded, thrown into the trunk of a car, and ultimately imprisoned inside the titular black box where he is left naked and bloody—and us, the captive audience.

You wouldn’t know it unless you googled it, but the short allegorical film was inspired by something called “the refrigerator,” a 5x5 cube lined with sheet metal that got extremely hot and/or cold, and was equipped with something resembling speakers to deploy horrible sounds. Amnesty International claimed these refrigerators were manufactured in Houston for use as torture devices in Latin American dictatorships. But you don’t really need to know that to get the gist. This is why their collaborations work so well: like Beth B, Lydia is not an artist inclined to provide you with simple answers.

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Lydia Lunch in Black Box (1978)

Not even when she is filling all available airtime with her words, as she does in Thanotopsis (1991), another Beth B collaboration. We hear Lydia before we see her—her impossibly childlike voice, almost sing-song, talking about “senseless violence” and “an orgy.” Onscreen, Lydia goes about the mundane tasks of daily life: checking mail, making tea, washing her face. But what we hear is in sharp contrast to what we see. We hear Lydia’s sharp, confident words—words about war, genocide, and human depravity. Her lifelong obsession, actually. Her words stab you while the images of her soothe you. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, and gestures towards what I think might be her whole point: that evil is mundane by nature. I suspect that these films cannot be experienced the same way in 2023 as they were back then. In Thanotopsis, we’re not told directly what to think, what to feel; we don’t get a lot of that kind of thing anymore. But back to what my friend Chris said—I don’t think anything about Lydia Lunch is easy, actually. Not the music, not the poems, not the films. They aren’t necessarily easy to watch, or to understand, but there’s actually a lot of freedom in that.

Which brings me to The War Is Never Over, Beth B’s 2019 documentary about Lydia. The film takes us through her life, from boundary-pushing teenage No Wave pioneer to iconoclastic multi-media artist. It’s a feat in itself to cram it all in; Lydia is nothing if not prolific as hell, whether it be through her multiple musical outfits, her volumes of poetry and essays, her film work, or perhaps most importantly, her profound and incalculable impact on each genre that she has participated in. It does all the things you want a documentary to do—contextualizes the subject with talking heads who are intimates (Kern, Tim Dahl of Retrovirus), icons (Thurston Moore, Kembra Pfaler), and surprises (Nicolas Jaar), pumps serotonin with footage of the glory days of NYC punk/No Wave, and then sobers you up with machine-gun confessionals from Lydia herself, most powerfully about the sexual abuse that she suffered at the hands of her father, delivered stony-eyed and chin-up confrontational.

That some 40 years later Lydia can still trade on her life to create discomfort and provoke thought is remarkable. But watching The War Is Never Over, I was especially struck by the thought that even when Lydia is presenting a façade of cool detachment in her performances, she is also exuding vulnerability. In an interview conducted around the release of the documentary, she asks, “Is it not vulnerable to reveal as much as I have?”

It’s a good question. The easy answer is that there is vulnerability in transparency, in anger, and even in an act. Though maybe the real vulnerability is in the freedom—that which both Beth B and Lydia Lunch demand for themselves as artists, and then more viscerally in the space that is created between their output and the way people understand it (or don’t). Lydia’s work as a whole is a constant reminder that it is not always easy to think for yourself. But it’s not that hard either.

Yasi Salek is the host of the podcast Bandsplain

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Black Box (1978)