Wolf, whose new film Teenage is out now, on the invention of the teenager and how our obsession with nostalgia may be helping our innovation.
Before the “teenager” was invented, there was no second stage of life: you were either a powerless child or an adult stuck in the day-to-day grind of work. But at the turn of the century, the concept of the “adolescent” emerged, as did a subsequent struggle between jaded adults and wild youth. Inspired by punk author Jon Savage’s book of the same name and executive produced by Jason Schwartzman, Teenage is a uniquely formatted documentary exploring the culture of young people from the first half of the 20th century in America, England, and Germany. The doc is comprised of rare archival newsreels, amateur movies, feature film clips, and photographs—along with newly filmed period reenactments of exceptional youth from history.
While we’ve all come to know and admire familiar teens such as Anne Frank, director Matt Wolf (director of Wild Combination: a Portrait of Arthur Russell) was more interested in the forgotten teenagers and hidden histories; and in how their obscure subculture movements inspired popular culture. Teenage is an experimental, “living collage” of a film, as permissive and wide-ranging in its technique as the behavior of the juveniles it describes. I spoke with Wolf about why adults should not be so quick to dismiss youth culture and independence; for while teenagers don’t necessarily have it all figured out just yet, they are ultimately responsible for our future, and many of their ideas are both powerful and indicative of great things to come.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Youths have long endured oppression—not only from their parents, but from the government and the police. Teens dealt with this oppression through music, fashion, movies, hanging out with their friends. How do you think art helps teens get through tough times?
Matt Wolf It’s all about creating new vocabularies to express yourself—that’s what artists do. That’s why people respond to art, because it expresses experiences that are happening to them. To me, the most significant cultural expression that happened to youth in this time period was Swing music and jitterbugging. It was a fully formed subculture that had its own unique fashion, music, dance—it was a total lifestyle. There was a political radicalism to it, because it had its origins in black American culture. Young people were socializing in integrated social spaces, and Swing had an incredibly subversive meaning in the context of Nazi Germany. The young people who were smuggling in records were making a bold political statement and risking their lives. Jitterbugging is inspiring to me because it’s both a form of partying and pop culture, but also a form of politics. It’s something that was youth-initiated, but became a mass media and global phenomenon. Art has the power to do all of those things. Every once in a while, something like Swing or punk clicks.
AJG The film covers multiple decades of history in one go, has a very unconventional multi-layered voiceover, and features elaborate period recreations. What was the greatest challenge to getting all this together?
MW The biggest challenge was that the invention of the teenager wasn’t laboratory science. People were competing over the definition of youth, and there was conflict over the ways youth should be treated. But what was clear was that youth was fetishized, and not recognized as a distinct social class with rights of their own. The development of an idea like the “teenager” is not something that happens in a linear path, and that was the most challenging aspect of the project. On a narrative level, how do you show an idea as a character, and how that character percolates, changes, and develops?
AJG It seems like teens have always wanted to be different from their parents and rebel—they consistently end up inheriting the mess their parents left behind. Do you find teens are the same across the ages in this sense, in that even though the times change, the issues they’re dealing with remain largely similar?
MW The circumstances change, and the problems they face and the solutions they devise are totally different across eras. I do think the notion of the “generation gap” is something that doesn’t ever go away, and there’s an enduring conflict where adults feel they need to control youth, because they represent the future. Young people are trying to define themselves but also trying to imagine the next era. There’s an intrinsic conflict there that doesn’t go away, and that’s why we see history repeating itself. A lot of the same rebellious instincts happen across every era.
AJG Young people today seem very nostalgic for the past. There are many period films and TV shows and audiences that seem very obsessed with the idea that they were born in the wrong decade. Do you think this is a new awareness, or has this level of nostalgia always been around?
MW Yeah, absolutely. I think you see it with the living collages of the punks in the ’70s. Young people have always been picking and choosing aspects of previous youth cultures, and reclaiming it as their own. It’s a rite of passage. I read the book Retromania by Simon Reynolds: at first I was kind of on-board with his argument that our culture being obsessed with the past is preventing us from being innovative. But then I grew to disagree with his argument, because I feel like we’re always indulging in a retro-nostalgia for the past, but also being innovative at the same time. I know I do that in my own work, and that the most important thing is not to romanticize the past, but to learn from it, and take inspiration and cues from things that were done before, and translate them into a new moment.
AJG So there’s this rift between the young and the old, this conflict you claim doesn’t ever go away. Do you think there could be a resolution between the two extremes? Could we ever work together better?
MW I think the invention of the teenager was a pretty effective compromise solution. With this defined model of youth, young people were granted certain freedoms to express themselves and self-determine their futures, and adults were granted certain measures of control. Within this model there was a balance between both generation’s needs. I think over time, market researchers will tell you, the generation gap is narrowing. Adults want more and more to be young, to be perceived as young, and even to be friends with their kids. I notice that, oftentimes, adults totally condemn and dismiss the young as being apathetic or more uncreative than their generation was. And even though they’re well-intentioned, it’s difficult for adults to see youth and realize they’re figuring things out on their own terms. They’re doing innovative things, and time will tell what those are. They’re figuring out solutions to problems—I might not be able to recognize them immediately, because they’re in a different language. But someday I’ll get it.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.