Monday, August 24, 2009

This past Friday Holly and I went to see Quentin Tarantino's new movie, Inglorious Basterds. It's not my favorite of his films by any means but it made an impression on us both, and since seeing it we've talked about it far more than we do the average Friday night movie.

Among other things, the film seems to strangely dovetail with the book I'm currently reading, Jon Savage's The England's Dreaming Tapes. Savage is one of the great rock-critics-cum-cultural-historians, and his book, England's Dreaming - first published in 1992 - is my pick for the single best book ever written about punk rock (if you check the archives of this blog, I posted my list for the best books ever written about rock music some months ago, and it's one of the chosen few). The new book is a belated companion volume composed of edited transcripts of several of the interviews that Savage conducted in writing his earlier cultural history. There are lengthy, detailed interviews with all of the original members of the Sex Pistols (no Sid Vicious, since he was long dead when Savage was doing his research) and many other musicians connected to the British punk scene. But many of the best interviews are with lesser known figures who provide a different sort of insider perspective - my favorite thus far is Savage's interview with Roger Armstrong, a former record store shopkeeper and indie record label figure who sheds considerable light on the musical tastes that drove the early punk scene, which he knew inside out because he sold records to many of the movement's key players.

So what does a book on punk rock have to do with Tarantino's new film? Well, Inglorious Basterds is a movie in which Tarantino constructs a wild fantasy about a Jewish resistance force put together to fight the Nazis in the most brutal way possible. The film flaunts Nazi imagery every chance it gets, most luridly in a completely over-the-top climax during which a film screening designed to be a Nazi rally becomes instead an inverted death camp. Hitler and Goebbels are major characters in the film, and the leader of the resistance - played by Brad Pitt - gets great pleasure from carving swastikas into the foreheads of those few captured Nazis that he and his comrades choose to let live.

One of the distinctive features of the mid-to-late 1970s punk scene, of course, was its appropriation of the swastika and other fascist imagery (this tendency characterized punk in both the U.S. and England though was more prominent in the U.K.). In The England's Dreaming Tapes, Savage repeatedly asks his interviewees why they thought the swastika became such a common icon during the punk era and what they thought it meant at the time. Many of those interviewed offer what have become stock answers - it wasn't meant to be taken seriously, it was more a means of provoking the older generation than it was anything to do with sympathy for Nazism, etc. Savage makes his own opposition to the use of the swastika clear but never really provides anything like a definitive explanation for what its use meant, and what stands out among many of the interviews is a certain defensiveness about its use, as though nobody really wants to dig too deep into why it proved such a compelling symbol for so many young (and not so young) people at the time.

Siouxsie Sioux was one of the punk-era figures most known for sporting swastikas as part of her visual aesthetic, and her response is characteristic of many cited in the book:

"It was always very much an anti-mums-and-dads thing. We hated older people. Not across the board, but generally the suburban thing, always harping on about Hitler, and 'We showed him,' and that smug pride; and it was a way of saying, 'Well I think Hitler was very good, actually.' A way of watching someon like that go completely red-faced. We made our own swastikas."

Tarantino's use of the swastika and his effort to draw upon the power of Nazi imagery in his new film seem to me to have a lot of similarities to the swastika's use in 1970s punk. Like Siouxsie and many of her punk compatriots, Tarantino seems fascinated by the swastika's power to shock, and he wants so badly for his film to have some of that same immediacy. It's one of the paradoxes of his film - as it was one of the paradoxes of punk - that its fundamentally anti-fascist politics are only possible to represent through an appropriation of fascist imagery that basks in its most sensational qualities.

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