AVANT TO BE PUNK If any artist ever self-classified as trash, it was (is?) Lydia Lunch, original ’70s New York City No Wave princess (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), ’80s underground film star (for Richard Kern, Scott and Beth B., Nick Zedd, etc.), and subsequent spoken-word performer and print autobiographer. In each medium her voice bottled the societally incriminating sarcasm of self-defined detritus, costume-partied as yesteryear’s bullet-bra’d sex object. By 1990, who beyond first-generation punk nostalgists gave a fuck? Europeans, that’s who.
That same year Lunch wrote and codirected (with Babeth Mondini) Kiss Napoleon Goodbye. The featurette photographed by Mike Kuchar, no less screened only in Dutch avant-garde and Berlin Film Festivalrelated events shortly after completion, then perhaps nowhere else until its recent release on the aptly named U.S. DVD label, Cult Epics.
It stars Lunch as Hedda, slinky spouse to Neal (Don Bajema). They’ve retreated to a lovely country château to reboot their relationship. This goes OK before Hedda hears from pal Jackson (Henry Rollins), who’s passing through on an author’s tour and wants to visit for the weekend. His arrival triggers an explosion of both Neal’s paranoiac imaginings and the filmmakers’ poetic ones.
Poet-novelist-playwright Bajema, at the time based in San Francisco and so sinewy he makes pumped costar Rollins look like an empty fitness showboat, was no trained actor. But his conviction as a man tortured by jealousy (and possibly madness) largely puts Napoleon across.
The film is a very odd duck, with aristocratic European locations juxtaposed against a primitive triangle drama, stilted lesbian scenes, bewildering historic flashbacks, Neal’s rather abstract meltdown, and the spectacle of macho lit-punk heroes muscle-tussling on a château lawn. There’s also experimental artist Z’ev as a guy aiming a trepanning drill into his own skull. Posting this under the Guardian‘s Trash umbrella is honest only in vague, associative terms: Napoleon‘s makers were clearly aiming for art beneath the coatings of irony, pop, and punk sarcasm.
An oppressive bounty of DVD extras reveal Lunch’s latter-day subKaren Finley spoken-word rants as heckle-worthy, and much-heckled. (Still, her core messages about institutionalized misogyny are hard to argue against.) It all makes one nostalgic for the ironic hatefuck retro sex-kittenry of 1980’s Queen of Siam, the best album Lunch ever made, with or without a band. "Pleasure is always made sweeter at the expense of others," her character says in a Napoleon voiceover. That’s not necessarily the voice of wisdom. Just the voice of Lunch.