The teen 'geist so saturates our consciousness today that it's hard to believe that adolescence – the tumult that comes after childhood and before adulthood – wasn't fully acknowledged until after World War II. Such was filmmaker Matt Wolf's reaction to Jon Savage's book, Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture (2008), an exploration of the little-known prehistory of adolescence from 1875 to 1945. Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell) collaborated with Savage, attempting to flesh out – visually – the essence of Savage's wide-ranging book, focusing on how youth were buffeted about by the dramatic political, social, and economic upheavals taking place in the U.S., England, and Germany. "These were the regions where the competing definitions of youth played out most turbulently," Wolf explains. "In America, the model of democratic consumerism was rising, England was the gateway of American youth culture into Europe, and in Germany, Hitler was empowering and sacrificing youth like nobody else had in history."
The resulting film, Teenage, is not your garden-variety historical documentary. Coloring way outside the lines of traditional nonfiction filmmaking, the film is a riveting, sensory-overloaded representation of the fits and starts and cocoonlike emergence of the continually evolving teen culture we know today. Wolf likens his film to a "living collage," and that's a good description of this impressionistic work, constructed of archival footage and photos seamlessly (and therein lies both the operative principle and the possible rub) combined with staged re-creations and a voiceover narration by actors reading scripts which have been composited from actual diaries. Not to be overlooked is Bradford Cox's superb original score, which more than pulls its own weight in this exhilarating ride.
Austin Chronicle: What were some of the formal and substantive hurdles for you in adapting Savage's book to film?
Matt Wolf: Jon and I knew that we didn't want to make a traditional historical documentary. ... Rather than explaining the history, we wanted to more subjectively express the experiences of youth. So we decided to tell our story from adolescents' point of view, using actual quotes from teenage diaries and written testimonies that Jon sourced for his book.
Our film has a dreamlike quality to it, and it was challenging to strike a balance between creating a narrative about the invention of teenagers, providing historical context for specific stories, and expressing the broader emotional turmoil of youth.
AC: Can you talk some about why you chose the various cinematic tools you did? I'm especially interested in your blending of archival footage with re-creations (which brings to mind a similar technique used by Sarah Polley in her recent film, Stories We Tell). Is this a new direction for nonfiction film?
MW: I knew that Teenage would be a panoramic cultural history, and a film about ideas. But I wanted it to have emotional impact, and I felt like the best way to do this is with characters. Jon's book profiles a number of obscure adolescent figures from the early 20th century, and I chose to telescope into four of the most compelling ones. Brenda Dean Paul was one of England's Bright Young People [and] was a kind of Lindsay Lohan figure from the Twenties; Melita Maschmann, an idealistic Hitler Youth explains the lure of fascism; Tommie Scheel, a sort of proto-punk Swing Kid, smuggled American Swing music and British fashion into Nazi Germany to rebel against the regime; and Warren Wall, an African-American Boy Scout from the Forties, was trying to advance in society, but [was] hampered by the color of his skin. To me, these characters form a composite portrait of the teenager who was about to be born. There were virtually no images, and certainly no footage, of any of them. So I needed to resort to creative filmmaking to bring them to life. Rather than staging scripted scenes with dialogue, like a television docu-drama, I decided to film portraiture of the characters in the style of silent period home movies or newsreels. The goal was to have these filmed portraits mix seamlessly with actual archival footage. My cinematographer Nick Bentgen and I worked hard, using nondigital techniques to degrade 16mm film to look like actual found footage from the period.
AFS Doc Nights presents Teenage Wednesday, Aug. 21, 7:30pm, at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre (6226 Middle Fiskville). Director Matt Wolf will be in attendance. Tickets are $8 (general admission) or $5 for AFS members; visit www.austinfilm.org for tickets and complete details.
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