Far removed from the screaming headlines denouncing today’s celebrity youth and condemning the selfie generation, English punk historian Jon Savage and American filmmaker Matt Wolf have come together to shine an appreciative light on the under-20 set in their documentary, “Teenage.” ¶ Four years ago, Wolf approached Savage about turning his 2007 book, “Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture,” into an art film, and so began their quest to diversify and complicate the historical narrative behind what being a young person has meant over the past century. Using archival footage and reenactments of diary entries, the dreamy doc looks at the stories of teenagers as varied as a young woman in the Hitler Youth and a young man in Harlem at the dawn of the civil rights movement. It shows how new generations took shape from 1904 until 1945, which is when the film concludes.
Savage and Wolf talked to The Washington Post about their creative process, what makes a teenager and their hopes for the youth of today. “Teenage” has a one-week engagement at Landmark E Street Cinema starting May 23.
You say in the film that you think the idea of the teenager was an American invention. What elements of being a teenager do you see as being strictly American?
Savage: One of the starting points for the book was that sometime in the ’80s I found this extraordinary book by G. Stanley Hall called “Adolescence.” It was published in 1904, and what he did at the end of the book, which really struck me, is say that youth is part of American nationalization. And I thought that was really powerful, because obviously from a British standpoint, the 20th century was an American century, and after the Second World War, America was the great ideal.
Wolf: Well, I think it’s in the history and the kind of dialectic we were looking at, which was two things: democratic consumerism and regimentation. It was this American model of consumerism that prevailed, and it was in America where the term “teenager” was coined, in the New York Times, with the “Teen-Age Bill of Rights.” It was this youth as consumer ideal that was an American invention. So this idealization of American pop culture with this vision, aesthetic and melded together — that’s a teenager.
The film is beautiful, with Super 8 footage alongside new film, but it’s new film that’s made to look vintage.
Wolf: I think my attitude about it was that I really wanted to introduce these character portraits, which are a big element in Jon’s book. I thought it was a way to emotionally ground the film, and of course these characters are very obscure figures, so there was no film or photographic evidence of them. It felt like the best way to bring about these portraits of these forgotten figures was to visually reconstruct, and I wanted to do it in such a way that it was inspired by the archival footage.
And since you do go through a lot of diverse stories, from flappers to swing kids to sub debs and so on, do you have any favorite individuals you found in your research?
Wolf: I’d say Gad Beck, who was this kid living in Nazi Germany. He was living in the underground, and with newsreels, home movies and newspaper clippings, we just didn’t feel like we could bring his story to life. We’re both gay, and his story had gay culture as it connects with youth culture, and that felt like an incredible story.
Savage: Matt and I did have a week where we watched about 70 hours of archival film, and by the end of it, we realized a problem with a lot of it was that it was from the view of the adult; and we realized then that we didn’t want the view of the adult, we wanted the view of the real-life kids. There’s quite a lot of first-person in our film, and that was all because it felt like a lot more personal.
As far as the differences between boys and girls in their younger years, did you ever see any difference in language or themes in the male and female teenage experience?
Wolf: I think we both agree that it feels like a story about the triumph of young women and how instrumental they were in forming the culture through their actions, but also they were valued as representing the new and the future, especially during the 1920s.In so many ways we think it’s a story about the triumph of adolescent girls.
Savage: One of the things I’ve always liked about pop culture is the power of young girls. Also the other thing is that when you look at American history, American women were at the forefront of consumerism going back to the last quarter of the century, and young American women are really drawing the discussion. All of the discussion leading up to the coining of the word “teenage” in 1944 or 1945 was surrounding young women, because of course around this time, most young men were in the war.
To move on to what it means to be a teenager or young person today, what effect do you think technology is having on the teenage experience?
Wolf: There’s a lot of discussion on whether underground culture vs. mainstream culture still exists, because a lot of the youth culture were underground, so I think that distinction is a lot blurrier and less significant because of the Internet. I think every age group has their own anxiety fueled by their own circumstances, and I think a young person now faces a new kind of anxiety because there’s instantaneous feedback for all of their experiences.
Savage: Like any new technology, there’s good and there’s bad. I think how adults view new technology goes with how they view the future and young people, because young people embody the future, and nowadays a lot of adults are fearful of the future. So it’s unsurprising that there’s a lot of tension now between young people and the older generation.
What are some of your hopes for the teenagers of today?
Savage: I would just hope adults in our society learn to value teenagers for who they are. There’s a new trope now, maybe it’s only in the U.K., where people are saying, well, teens aren’t nearly as radical as they were back then, the music’s s---, blah blah blah, and I just think that’s rude and very ignorant, and it also ignores the fact that each generation has its own time and its own task. Because I write about punk, everybody says, “Wouldn’t you like punk to happen again?” And I think, “What a stupid question,” because punk was for a certain time and place. It’s a completely different world than before, and what might seem terrible to adults is totally normal for a 14-year-old.
What do you want your audience to ultimately feel?
Wolf: I want them to feel like they’ve had an experience in which they’ve seen something very familiar unfold in a very unfamiliar way. In terms of ideas, it’s that I want people to reconnect to their own intensity of feeling that they felt as a young person, both in the emotional and the political dimension. And I hope that reconnecting with those feelings, it inspires a sense of hope and optimism about the young, as opposed to a type of condemnation and disdain. So in a sense I feel like it’s a call to arms for young people and for adults, a call to recognize teenagers.
Opens at Landmark E Street Cinema on May 23. Not rated. 80 minutes.