Performance

The Invention of the Teenager

Film stills from “Teenage:The Creation of Youth Culture” (all images provided by Matt Wolf)

It’s strange to be reminded in the 21st century that there was a time before “teens” and “tweens,” before those years between childhood and adulthood, i.e. adolescence, had a name and now, a stereotype. All of us who attended the Books & Talks lecture Friday night, however, at Artists Space’s new offshoot on Walker Street, were reminded that before the 1950s teenagers as we know them didn’t exist. In a talk between the British author Jon Savage and the young, New York-based filmmaker Matt Wolf, the two men discussed their four-year collaboration on the film Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture that’s set to open in 2013.

Showing only a short teaser of the film’s first three minutes, most of the discussion traced the two men’s meeting, and their shared interest in the subject of youth culture. Savage and Wolf follow throughout their film the teenage subcultures that existed before mainstream society recognized and commodified them: the Bright Young Things, the Hitler Youth, the Hamburg Swingers, the Boy Scouts. The film, focusing on three countries that had active youth movements, America, England, and Germany, begins in the early 20th century and ends around 1945, where traditional discussions of teenagers usually begin. As the voice of a young, female narrator tells us in the film’s opening credits, “this is a story that ends with a beginning: the invention of the teenager.”

Jon Savage, on whose book the film is based, published his extensive non-fiction of the same title in 2007. He’s a dry witted and detail oriented writer and researcher, who brought precision and humor to the talk. Good historians are irresistible — they are like actors only the captivating stories they weave are actually true — and Savage seems to know more about self-defined “youth movements” than most youths themselves. Though the Books & Talks crowd seemed puzzled by his humor and off put by his factual manner of speaking, his interests and knowledge clearly enabled the film’s making. In the stilted dynamic of a forced conversation between two collaborators, Savage was the expert and Wolf the visual translator of his research.

The talk was not so much a conversation between the two men as it was a display of each man’s particular strengths and specialties. If the Presidential debates have taught us anything it’s that we love to show off our expertise and avoid the questions and topics where we flounder. While the facts of Teenage are Savage’s purview, the visualization of them is clearly Wolf’s. Pulling from extensive but untapped archives of teenagers, Wolf explained how he avoided stock footage, adult narration and the traditional limitations of documentary filmmaking. Wolf kept the voice and perspective of Teenage young through voiceovers of teenagers expressing their own thoughts and ideas.

In the film’s only real departure from Savage’s book, Wolf brings four historical teens to life through the careful use of recreation. Brenda Dean Paul, a Bright Young Thing, Melita Maschmann, a Hitler Youth, Tommie Scheel, a Hamburg Swinger, and Warren Wall, an African American Boy Scout, have all been recreated for Teenage to give the film’s narrative yet another layer. While all four stories are impressively singular and specific to their eras, they are at the same time indicative of the universal struggles teenagers go through to gain autonomy from adults, government and society at large. After learning to use 16mm film, Wolf seamlessly mixed archival and recreated footage together to give these four youths a new visual story. As Wolf put it, “we’ve rescued them from the margins of history.”

One of the main themes of Teenage is the self-definition of youth by youth. In discussing the film both Savage and Wolf explained the test they employed to keep themselves within the margins of their massive topic, the so-called “teen test.” The teen test is a series of questions and concerns that go something like this: Is the footage of a teenager? Is it about a teenager? Is it from their perspective? Is it about teenagers defining what it means to be young? As Savage and Wolf discussed the “teen test,” I was reminded of all the high-school movies and television shows made for teenagers with a cast made up entirely of adults. It seems Savage and Wolf’s documentary might rescue teenagers themselves from the margins of representation.

As much as I like the idea of there not being a loaded term adults can use to dismiss the difficulty of adolescence, I know I’d rather have been a “teenager” than simply a child. Teenager has become a word as loaded as “hipster;” it’s a catchall term with no fixed definition that no one wants to be associated with. It seems, however, that the film Teenage might remind us of the great energy and optimism that youth culture embodies, especially in difficult times like Nazi Germany or the Great Depression. As Savage pointed out Friday night, “youth is a powerful dissolver of class.”

Jon Savage and Matt Wolf’s Teenage talk took place on Friday, October 19, 7pm at Artists Space (55 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan).

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