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Doc Talk: taking a Lunch break, finding eternity in grains of sand

Lydia Lunch, from "Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over."K Fox/Kino Lorber

If Elizabeth Moss’s depiction of the spectacularly asocial and self-destructive punk rock singer Becky Something, in Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell” (2018), was a little too tame for you, meet the subject of Beth B’s raunchy, jagged documentary “Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over.” It’s streaming via the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.

From the late 1970s to the present-day, Lunch has set a standard for transgression in music, poetry, performance art, underground filmmaking, life coaching, and lifestyle. She is a veteran not of the New Wave, but the no wave, a nihilistic movement that she helped pioneer. Lunch describes it as “user unfriendly and discordant based on personal aggression and insanity.” Now 62, she hasn’t slowed down but continues to scald audiences with her excoriating, no-holds-barred performances.


Lunch presents a portrait of herself as a very young artist at the beginning of the film, relating in voice-over a childhood anecdote about how she was picked up as a 13-year-old by a guy who drove her to the park, pointed a shotgun at her, and ordered her to lick his tires. She did so. “He said, ‘You know it’s not about sex,’” she recalls. “And that’s when I knew it wasn’t about sex it was about power and at that point I had the power.”

Thus empowered, at 16 she escaped her abusive family situation, in Rochester, N.Y., for New York City, where she found a home in the raucous art and music scene. In 1977 she formed the band “Teenage Jesus and the Jerks,” performing and recording songs with mantra-like lyrics such as “burning orphans running through the bloody snow!” Critics were appalled. But fellow musicians like Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth, one of several contemporary and recent collaborators interviewed in the film, remembers thinking that the song was “a masterpiece.”


Her music reflects an anarchic sex life, and in 1985 she made the short film “The Right Side of My Brain” with avant-garde filmmaker Richard Kern. “It was about me trying to get over my obsession with the need for an ever-unsatisfied cycling through a series of men,” she explains. “None of them [were] really able to satisfy my unquenchable hunger. Which is why at times I would need six of them. Not necessarily at the same time.”

Lunch’s rapid-fire, raspy recollections of her musical sojourn, of her forays into such genres as psychedelic rock and surf music, and of her peregrinations to Los Angeles, London, and New Orleans, are jagged, poetic, and funny. With her most recent band, Retrovirus, she’s seen performing 40 years of her music. She dominates the stage, roaring out songs and engaging in often-obscene patter, inviting the men and women in the audience to fondle her or take the mic and express their secret selves.

As one might surmise, this savage output comes in part from a place of great pain, from the years of childhood abuse she suffered from her father. “I could feel nothing that wasn’t extreme,” she says of her response to this. “I had basically flat-lined as … protection against trauma. I knew from an early age that I was going to deal with [the trauma], I was going to talk about it, I was going to express it, and I was going to not carry it on.”


“Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over” can be streamed via the Brattle Theatre’s Brattlite Virtual Screening Room. Go to watch.eventive.org/brattletheatre.

From "Echoes of the Invisible."GlobeDocs Festival

Going to extremes

The next time you feel a task is insurmountable take a look at the subjects in Steve Elkins’s often astonishing “Echoes of the Invisible” (2020). Featured in last year’s GlobeDocs Film Festival, it links the stories of several remarkable men and women.

The invisible is no stranger to extreme distance runner Al Arnold. Though blind, he plans to run across Death Valley — from Badwater Basin in the heart of the desert to the summit of Mount Whitney about 150 miles away — the lowest and highest places in the continental United States. This had never been done before by any runner, blind or sighted.

Elsewhere in Death Valley, artist Rachel Sussman pursues her project to take pictures of the world’s oldest living organisms. They have to be at least 2,000 years old to qualify. In that desert she photographs bristlecone pines, which are not only starkly baroque in their twisted beauty but also clock in at around 5,000 years old. They were alive, she says, when the wheel was being invented and Sumerians were developing cuneiform, the oldest written language.

Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, sets his sights even further back in the past. He plans to walk across the world, following in the footsteps of the first human migrations, starting at the origin of the species, in Ethiopia, and ending 20,000 miles away, at Tierra del Fuego, in Argentina, where some 7,000 years ago scientists say was the farthest point that the wanderings of homo sapiens had reached.


In Chile’s Atacama Desert, at the Very Large Telescope, men and women study stars and other phenomena billions of light years away, in effect gazing at the birth pangs of the universe. Meanwhile at the CERN Large Hadron Collider, in Switzerland, “the world’s biggest machine and the coldest thing in the universe” as one physicist describes it, scientists search for the fundamentals of matter.

Punctuating these and other stories of searches for the extremes of existence are the labors of Losang Samten, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who meticulously creates a huge mandala out of colored sand. (Spoiler: In the end he sweeps it away.) What all the subjects have in common is a need to escape the distractions of the media, the Internet, and everyday life, and in that silence connect with the vastness beyond all the noise.

“Echoes of the Invisible” is available to rent or own on Altavod or iTunes. Go to www.altavod.com/content/echoesoftheinvisible.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.