Based on British author Jon Savage's punk history novel, Matt Wolf's "living collage" of a documentary, "Teenage," aims to tell the story of the formulative of years of youth culture. The doc, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens this Friday via Oscilloscope, presents a bounty of rare archival footage and beautifully shot reconstructions that delve into the lasting effect that flappers, swing kids, Nazi Youth and Boy Scouts had in the period between the enacting of child labor laws in the beginning of the twentieth century to the dropping of the atom bomb. It's a stylish, freewheeling and fun ride, buoyed by an astounding score from Deerhunter front-man Bradford Cox, but it also opens up the thought-provoking subject of the evolution of youth culture and where it's headed in contemporary times.
We sat down with Wolf, Savage and executive producer Jason Schwartzman shortly following the film's world premiere to talk about the arduous research process, how the film crosses the generation gap and the future of "teenagedom."
Jon: Can I offer you anything? Teenage postcard? Teenage slide? Teenage pin?
Jason: Teenage slide sounds like a dance.
Jon: Yeah, you can't do it as an adult because you do it on your knees.
Jason: I tried to do a power slide when I was dancing at a party and I was like, "ahhh!" and I stopped short. I didn't slide anywhere, at all. I ran and slid, and then, (makes a screaming noise)
Jon: Yeah, maybe that isn't a good idea.
Jason: No kneepads. I think Pete Townshend had kneepads.
Jon: You know who's really fucked his knees is Iggy Pop.
So is this movie kind of a product of a certain amount of nostalgia for a time in your life when you could all do slides?
Matt: I don't necessarily think of it as nostalgic but I do think of it as a film about a certain kind of golden age of youth. During the early twentieth century young people faced just this incredible amount of oppression from their parents, the government and the police and they were struggling for the most basic forms of recognition so they could be treated like equals. And because of all that the stakes were really high and the kind of politics young people got involved in was incredibly turbulent but also the kinds of popular culture were kind of innovative, like swing. It had such a huge influence on broader culture. In a sense I'm not nostalgic about it being a better time, I just feel like it's a really formulative period in history.
Jon: I guess I feel as though the film is very "teenage" in that although it's about the historical period it's also very much set in the now. Because that's the experience of being a teenager. And a lot of the devices that we used in the film, that Matt can talk about, are to do with rooting the story in a kind of now as opposed to a kind of then, you know?
Matt: We think of the film as this living collage. Jon told me this thing he observed in the seventies with punks, where they would take thrift clothes from previous generations and they would cut them up and reassemble them with safety pins into something new. That's kind of the philosophy of the filmmaking too, is taking all of these images and voices and histories of youth from the past and re-scrambling them into something that feels like a new work that is meant to help people reflect on the youth of any period, but especially today.
I definitely agree with that, but comparatively as someone who's twenty watching the movie, there's this large discrepancy between youth in the two periods of time. Where now it's kind of like, where are we going? How will our culture make a similar lasting impact? Knowing all of the history that's in the film, what do you guys think of this? Are you able to in a way predict what this generation will accomplish, where "teenagedom" is going?
Jon: As a twenty year old, could you identify with various things in the film, did certain things tie with your own experience?
Definitely, but a lot of that experience, I think, is kind of rooted in nostalgia for a period that I didn't actually live in. It's a little romanticized for me where I see something that I would've wanted to have been part of, but I don't necessarily see that so much in my current generation.
Matt: Yeah, I can relate to that. I've never actually made a film that's taken place in the present. And I don't make work about myself, but I do think what I make is very personal. My interest is in personal filmmaking. I don't call it nostalgic because I don't want to idealize these other periods, but it's my own way of kind of having a deeper sense of my experience today is by kind of looking at things that I relate to from the past.
Jon: But also that's what kids do. When I was a teenager I picked up a lot of stuff from the past, especially when I got involved in punk rock in the seventies. I used to make collages of stuff from the fifties and sixties, the period immediately before when I was a teenager. Kids do take stuff from the past and then they look at it in a different way and make something new out of it. I am very hopeful about teenagers of today. I think that they will do that and find creative solutions and make art and do all the things that teenagers have done since the Second World War. I don't think it's anything different, I just think the circumstances have changed and the media changed. But I think the basic impulse is the same, which is you come out into the world, and it's not what you want, and what are you going to do about it? If you've got any spirit you're going to try and change it. For yourself, and maybe for other people as well.
Like you said this is a very formulative period for youth, but is it a period that the three of you were interested in other than that? Is it a period where you would've wanted to be a teenager?
Matt: I actually never though deeply about this period of history. I've always thought about more contemporary periods, but the hook for me within Jon's book is that I loved that the typical expectation when one hears youth culture is punk, and skater, and hippie, and beatnik, and that this film kind of denies this expectation and goes back much further to uncover hidden histories. And I think I'm drawn to hidden histories and I think that the story of youth from this period is unknown and unfamiliar and the characters that we've profiled and telescoped into the film are unfamiliar people and types. And I think that's what brought this period alive for me is that kind of discovery.
Jon: So although a lot of it is old, it's new.
Matt: And also just on an aesthetic level too I'm very familiar with the kind of 1950s archetypal American teenager styles and it's really cool to see the subtle variations of that from the 30s and 40s. And of course another thing that's really interesting to me is that there are so many cliched stock images of flappers from the Roaring Twenties that it was so satisfying to me to find more vernacular and home movie imagery of youth from that time. It gave me a real and more visceral sense of what it would be like to be alive during that time. The feeling is still very similar, it's just the style and the lingo that shifts.
This interview is continued on page 2...