Last week, we had the chance to talk with Matt Wolf, director of the new independent film ‘Teenage’. The film discusses the lives of teenagers all over the world from the 1900s to the 1950s, focusing on the creation of the modern teenager, along with difficulties and experiences they faced with creating this new youth culture.
ANON: What inspired you to take on this project?
Matt Wolf: I was inspired by Jon Savage’s book Teenage. I was a longtime fan of Jon’s writing— he wrote the definitive history of punk rock, England’s Dreaming. What I loved about Teenage is all the hidden histories and forgotten biographies that Jon uncovered. I felt like he was treating early 20th century history through a punk lens, and that inspired me to make a different kind of historical film.
A: How would you compare your understanding of the present day youth culture to the youth cultures presented in Teenage?
MW: I think there are some universals— adults try to control youth because they represent the future. Young people push back and rebel because they’re trying to create their own world, and to imagine the future on their own terms. What’s different today is of course the Internet. It’s a much more globalized youth culture, and young people have the opportunity to exchange information and ideas like never before. They also have a very contemporary pressure to document themselves relentlessly and expectations for instantaneous feedback. That wasn’t the case for the Jitterbugs or Sub-Debs of the 1930s and 1940s.
A: Would you say that youth culture has led to major changes, advancements, and developments in society and in the world as a whole?
MW: Absolutely. I think teenagers are often the pioneers of the most groundbreaking pop culture, music, and fashion. But at the same times while making this film, I recognized how politically significant the rebellion of youth can be. Young people are often at the center of social movements that are imagining a different kind of future. It makes sense, they’ll be inheriting the next era.
A: Do you consider youth culture (as a whole) to be a form of counter-culture, or are there specific groups within youth culture that account for counter-culture being present in society.
MW: I’m most interested in youth movements that are counter-cultural and that create “alternative” forms of expression, for lack of a better word. In my film and in the world there are certainly youth movements that are not anti-authoritarian, such as the Boy Scouts. “Beliebers” are a very different breed than teenagers, who are participating in Occupy Wall Street protests. The mainstream youth fads are pretty much always the result of aggressive marketing. I’m interested in the ways young people create new forms of expressions that haven’t yet been co-opted by the advertisers and corporations.
A: You did a marvelous job creating Teenage, especially due to the fact that it included the perspectives from multiple regions of youth cultures throughout a span of time in the early 1900s. With that being said, which youth culture movement featured in your movie would you consider to be your personal favorite (or the most interesting)?
MW: I love the Jitterbugs. It was African American music being popularized by young people, and they were expressing themselves across lines of race and class. These Swing music fans popularized their own styles of music, fashion, dance, and slang, and their inventions captured the imagination of adults, who made Jitterbugging a mass-media phenomena. It’s fascinating to see what happens when Swing music and culture works its way over to Europe during World War II.
A: What kind of impact would you like to see Teenage make upon its audiences?
MW: I want the film to make viewers see the world from the point of view of a young person. That shouldn’t’ be too difficult because we were all once teenagers. My hope is that by examining this history people’s attitudes about young people today will shift. Often times, adults condemn today’s teenagers as being apathetic. I think we should have more hope and trust in the young.
A: Will the movie hit most theaters or will it be entirely selective screenings?