Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over begins with Lunch, the pioneering frontwoman of Teenage Jesus & The Jerks (and later numerous other bands) recounting a story that happened when she was just thirteen. A man pesters her to let him drive her home, and when she eventually relents, the first thing he tells her when she gets in the car is “it’s not about sex.” The story ends with Lunch being forced at gunpoint to lick the tire of the car, but in recalling it, she remarks, “that’s when I knew it wasn’t about sex; it was about power, and at that point, I had the power.”

No Wave, like Dada before it, was protest art that spanned mediums — a rejection of the world in the aftermath of war, political corruption, and racial and gender inequities. Lunch’s unexpected flipping of the script was a rejection of how those horrors manifest at the level of the individual, and her art and that of other No Wave artists would go on to assault not just the politesse and good taste that reproduce those inequities, but also the very senses. Dissonance and atonality usurped pop chord structures, filmmakers directly tackled taboo subject matter and sexuality in unapologetic ways, and screening and performance venues (often the same) pumped volumes to ear-splitting levels. If art couldn’t be a portal to a better world, it could at least reject our current one.

Beth B, director of The War is Never Over, was among No Wave’s first and greatest filmmakers, and she has continued to work steadily into the present day. Ahead of the film’s release, B discussed her work and the movement’s continued relevance.

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Lydia Lunch performing (photo by Kathleen Fox)

Hyperallergic: You were a No Wave pioneer yourself, but recently you’ve turned to documentary. What spurred that change?

Beth B: What I’m doing is still No Wave. It’s a rejection of what is, and it’s embracing what is not: what we don’t see, what we don’t hear. My mode is to really bring those things to the fore. What I was doing in the late seventies was in a way smacking people in the face and really being very aggressive, talking about things that people didn’t want to necessarily hear about, without apology. But how could we ignore all the social injustices and what was happening in the government, in other countries, all the abuses? 

At that time, it was perhaps a bit more shocking to people because nobody was talking about it. Now we’ve been through a number of decades and people have started to exploit other people’s miseries. I don’t want to do that, but what I think is critically important is to hear voices that are unheard and see things that we have not seen before.

What I was doing then was fact-based. It was truth telling. It was more experimental, then it went narrative. But there were elements of documentary in it. A lot of the approach had to do with having no money, no budget. After working in television for quite a number of years, I thought, “I’ve got [to] get back to my roots.” That was in 2010. That’s when I started making Exposed, but I approached it in very much the same way as No Wave — tiny little camera, one woman band, doing most of it myself, and going back to the underground of New York City. That roped me back into a similar mode and approach to filmmaking and into doing projects I’m passionate about. That’s what brought me to making this film. 

I was also trying to bring a sense of that gritty DIY approach. Just do it yourself! You don’t need corporate validation or Hollywood validation to do something. You just have to have a burning desire to approach a subject you feel you can be insightful about. And no matter how extreme, no matter how obscure, there are people out there who will embrace it. The motives do not need to be financial.

Lydia Lunch performing in Stockholm (photo by Ken Andersson)

H: I was impressed by all the archival material that you dug up for the film. Was anybody at the time thinking about preserving No Wave art?

B: When I started making this, I thought, “damn, I wish I had filmed more!” Luckily the people who I found to contribute were extremely generous. Thank God they had preserved some. We found footage that Lydia and I thought had never been preserved, things we thought were lost forever, like that performance of “Conspiracy of Women” at Cafe Largo. That’s the only footage I’ve ever seen of that performance. I have to thank people for their generosity since we had no budget, as usual.

Now people are seeing the value of what was done in that time period and realizing that if we don’t preserve it now, if we don’t restore them, they will be lost. It’s critically important for people to look at them through the lens of what’s going on in our culture today. I think it will help inform young people of the vitality and importance of that period.

H: How does institutional support back then compare to what you see in outsider art today?

B: It was really absent in the late seventies. We were so off the map we couldn’t even show our films at galleries or alternative spaces, forget the cinemas. There was no institution to embrace the movies being made, or the art, or anything, because it was so outsider. We had a very different approach. That time was very much about Structuralist filmmaking. When I started making films it was all about abrasiveness and speaking the unspeakable.

So, we went to the clubs. The clubs were embracing very cutting-edge music — that’s where Lydia was playing with Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and where Mars and DNA were playing. For us, it was perfect. I think it was actually Lydia who introduced us to the people at Max’s Kansas City. We showed Black Box there, the first film shown in a club. They had the sound systems to support that insane sound coming from the films. No galleries could support that. It was the perfect venue for the films we were making. 

It was only after touring in Europe and eventually the United States that there was attention drawn to the films that we were doing. The first support we got from any institution was Artists Space and the Film Forum, but that was after a number of years. But that’s when the media comes in and discovers everything and says “now this can be consumed by the mainstream.” After that, people had ambitions to get famous and to get rich. That destroyed the scene, those aspirations that went beyond the content. For me, the content was the most important thing, and that led me to the medium. That’s also why I have worked not just in film but theater, large scale art exhibitions, interactive work, painting, sculpture, photography. The content dictates the form.

Fast forward to today, I don’t think there’s any more support for outsider art at all. In some ways it has lost support. In the ’80s and ’90s there was some financial support from European television, but that dried up. That’s why I stopped making narrative films; they had actors and big crews to pay. I couldn’t do it anymore. I made a couple documentary films after Two Small Bodies — a film about juvenile sex offenders called Voices Unheard that I had a little funding for, and then I got some funding from ZDF Television to do Breathe In/Breathe Out. Those two films helped focus a lot of the work that I did after. They were about how we carry the cycle of violence from generation to generation. 

From left to right: Beth B and Lydia Lunch (photo by Curt Hoppe)

H: Just like this film.

B: And Lydia’s work, absolutely. I wanted to carry this history of women’s struggle and the struggle against violence and abuse to a younger generation, and for them to understand the history behind it. You saw the film Bread by Ida May Park? It’s the Harvey Weinstein story. In 1918! We can learn from our history if we’re told it, but we have to be told it again and again and again, so I wanted to have Lydia tell it. “The War is Never Over.” That’s the message! We have to keep our eyes open and continue to be activists.

H: There’s a great moment in The War is Never Over when Lydia says she quit 8-Eyed Spy because they got too popular. What are the tradeoffs of that kind of attitude?

B: Some of it has to do with intention. When I approach a subject, it’s borne out of an obsession or passion. I’m not thinking about the audience, but the subject. I think about the ideas burning inside of me. I would love for my films to reach more people, but I think if that were my intention, I would never have made a lot of the films that I made. I have to stay true to myself. That’s what got me out of television — I was bringing my own projects, but at a certain point the corporate entity started to take a lot of control. “Cut this,” “cut that,” “we need this.”

I feel very sad for some of the younger generation. To be living in this time where everything is geared toward commercialism. I think it’s a very hard time to live in and have idealism with everything geared toward the commodity. And idealism is, to me, really important. When I lose it, I need to find it. That’s what generates my ideas. 

H: Both today and the late ’70s are eras with tremendous amounts of cynicism. You had the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism; now it’s the Forever Wars, Trump, police state cynicism. But in the past, New York was abandoned, decrepit, and now it’s this playground for the rich. Does that affect what art can and cannot be made?

B: Your description is very accurate. But I loved all of it. That was our playground because we didn’t have anything to lose. We were so alienated, such misfits, and so enraged. We had no choice but to scream and create. That was our release. But all those disenfranchised creative people came to New York City and we were all just around, on the streets. Everyone was below 14th Street. People left their doors open and held loft parties.

Young people today have to actively seek out other like-minded people, people they can express themselves within an uncensored way. The truest artistic expression is not borne from trying to conform, but from a sense of rebellion. I hope that young people can find that in each other or be inspired by the more extreme natures of art and cinema.

Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over opens June 30 at the IFC Center in New York and July 2 in virtual cinemas nationwide. A companion book to the film is available now.

Forrest Cardamenis is a critic and film programmer living in Queens, New York. He received an M.A. in Film Studies from New York University, and has written for MUBI Notebook, The Brooklyn Rail, and The...