Thursday, 6 March 2014

GFT programme note: Teenage


‘- What are you rebelling against?
 - What have you got?’
The Wild One (dir: Laslo Benedek, 1953)
The history of teens onscreen is a history of rock ‘n’ roll and Tuesday Weld; angst, rebellion and teenage kicks; of James Dean’s red jacket, the valley girl cliques of Clueless, and Ferris Bueller twistin’ and shoutin’ through the streets of Chicago. But just as these screen archetypes have their predecessors (from Rimbaud to Austen to any number of Bildungsromans), so too does the very concept of teenage-ness – strikingly explored in director Matt Wolf’s new documentary. Teenage offers a prehistory of the teenager as both an idea and an ideal, tracing the diverse social strands that helped to demarcate the years between thirteen and nineteen as a distinct intermediate zone; a transitional stage of development between childhood and adulthood with its own qualities, cultures and characteristics.

Jon Savage, on whose book the film is based, argues that, between 1875 and 1945, “every single theme now associated with the modern teenager had a vivid, volatile precedent.”[1] The film adaptation adopts a slightly narrower focus, honing in on early 20th century events, with select milestones including the abolition of child labour, liberating youth from the factories and workhouses that had forced them to grow up fast; the cataclysm of the first World War, which “gutted an entire generation” and fostered resentment amongst the young against the older generations who’d sent them to die in the trenches; and the hopelessness and disenfranchisement engendered by the Great Depression. Alongside such seismic occurrences, various sub-cultures flourished: flappers, jitterbugs, rockers, subdebs and more. But Teenage isn’t a straightforward celebration of adolescent vitality. Alongside the film’s catalogue of teen movements in the UK and the US (the former eternally looking towards the latter for its cues), interwar Germany is presented as a kind of crucible for the way youthful energies can be corrupted and co-opted. Yet, as with anywhere and anytime else, the story of German proto-teenagers is a story of resistance and resilience as well as acquiescence and conformity, with the former qualities represented by groups like the White Rose movement and the Edelweiss Pirates, who “escaped to nature [and] declared eternal war” against their fascist contemporaries.

Throughout, Teenage presents itself as a communal history, with its myriad voiceovers always in the first person, their sources largely unspecified, and with ‘we’ the preferred pronoun. The effect is a kind of collective biography through which only a handful of named individuals are afforded special attention: “a party-crazed Bright Young Thing named Brenda Dean Paul; Melita Mashmann, an idealistic Hitler Youth; a proto-punk German swing kid named Tommie Scheel; and Warren Wall, an African-American Boy Scout.”[2] In interview, Wolf has compared this quartet with the subjects of his previous films – cult musician Arthur Russell (Wild Combination, 2008), artist and activist David Wojnarowicz (Smalltown Boys, 2003) and poet and writer Joe Brainard (I Remember, 2012), labelling Teenage’s composite tales “hidden histories”, each “underground in their own way.”[3] Indeed, it seems fitting that a filmmaker whose past work has studied fringe artists, outsiders and iconoclasts should be drawn to examine the period of life in which feelings of difference and opposition are typically at their strongest.

Visually, Teenage draws its footage from an array of sources: archive photographs, newsreels, propaganda films, amateur home movies and more. Where there are gaps, Wolf inserts his own ‘fake archival footage’, splicing carefully calibrated reconstructions into the (re)assemblage of genuine archive material (a technique he previously employed in Wild Combination). Clever manipulation of the mise-en-scene allows many of these forgeries to go unnoticed, stitched so neatly into the film’s fabric that only occasionally do we see through the illusion; a rhythmic score from Deerhunter/Atlas Sound musician Bradford Cox, meanwhile, helps bridge the edits and foster coherence. For Wolf, this wild combination of real and unreal is the deliberate antithesis of the authoritative documentary style typified by a filmmaker like Ken Burns (The Statue of Liberty (1985), The Central Park Five (2012)). “The form of the film” Wolf asserts, “is perhaps as rebellious as the adolescent subjects it depicts.”[4]

Central to the film’s collective portrait of the teenager is a sense of universality: the conceit that the passions that drive individual adolescents in one cultural context are linkable to those inspiring or plaguing individuals elsewhere, else-when. As well as underwriting the very format of the film, this universality is foregrounded at multiple suggestive junctures. For instance, the history of teenagers is arguably also a history of popular music trends, and when one voice states “I got all the new jazz records – my mum thought it was awful noise”, it touches upon a cliché that could have been drawn from any of the decades since, in relation to parent-bothering youth cultures from punk to house music. Similarly, scenes of Rudolph Valentino’s funeral inspiring mass hysteria pre-empt Beatlemania by several decades (and Bieber-mania by several more), while the trend for renaming teen canteens with colourful slang to “prove that it’s ours” illustrates the ever-shifting argot of youth vocabulary.

Upon hitting 1945, the collage of events becomes more rapid: Elvis, Tiananmen Square, skateboarders, Vietnam, cheerleaders, goths and rollercoasters – 70 years of youth culture collapsed into a single montage. The message is clear: once the teenager’s arrival had been acknowledged and its existence formalised, the hard work was done, and everything since has been a reiteration. It’s only here that the film’s collective biography approach perhaps finds its representational limits, smoothing over the edginess and diversity of youth in order to wrap up its braided narratives and provide its thematic history with a rousing conclusion. But the sense of continuity it imparts – and the invitation to insert one’s own experience of teenage-ness into the tapestry – reinforces the underlying themes of inclusion, evocatively casting teen spirit as a timeless impulse: the impulse to not only refashion the past, but to forge one’s own future.

Chris Buckle, Journalist and Researcher
March 2014

[1] Jon Savage, Teenage: The Creation of Youth (London: Pimlico, 2008), p.xiii
[2] Stuart Comer, ‘Dreaming Documentary’, Mousse Magazine No. 40 (2003), accessed February 2013 at
[3] ibid
[4] Comer (2003)

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