'Teenage' Is A Mix Of Footage, Contrasts And Eccentric History
Matt Wolf’s Teenage is something of a mess, but it’s an interesting mess. It’s impossible for the film to avoid the label “documentary,” but it’s not that.
Most of the picture is made up from archival footage, which is non-fiction, but also includes clips from old movies. The connections between shots, though, and more important, the connections with the audience, are poetic rather than documentary, and maybe more of a mulling over than anything else.
The title indicates that the movie is about teenagers in some way, but just how is hard to discern. If it’s a history of teenage-ness, it’s an eccentric history. The film comes from a book by punk writer Jon Savage, and director Matt Wolf says that he imagined a “theatrical love-song to adolescence.”
While the movie agrees that adolescence is a post-World War II American notion of people in the teenage years, it begins with footage of child factory workers in England in 1904, and then barely goes past World War II.
Along the way, the images are colored by spoken narration from the memories of a young British actress in the 1920s, a boy in the Hitler Youth, another Nazi era German boy, but this one a disaffected “swing kid,” at a time when the Gestapo hanged young people who listened to swing music. The fourth narrator is a black American Boy Scout from before the war. The narrators all speak in the cadence of young people now, and the music comes from the young composer Bradford Cox.
The mix of old film footage and present-day sound is disorienting.
You can’t settle in and get comfortable with Teenage because you can’t quite figure out where you are in time and where you might be heading. Hitler Youth aren’t supposed to speak so frankly, or become disenchanted, and especially not when they sound like the teenager next door right now, but with the consciousness and experience of someone 80 years ago.
Much of the footage is black and white, with the graininess that indicates the age of the film material itself. But the color shots continue the dislocations. Home movies in the color of the ‘30s and ‘40s have a gauzy, turquoise look, almost like crayon. It’s otherworldly, an imaginary place that looks like real life, but not quite.
The subjects of these images make the contrasts and the feeling of displacement even stronger. Those factory children in 1904. Young women in the Hitler Youth, in their shorts and tank tops have a tug-of-war, run up a hillside and row on a lake. You can’t miss the intense, intimate camaraderie, and the exquisite joy in their faces. But this is before the Hitler Youth shifted to informing on parents and standing at attention saluting and sieg-heiling.
The film plays this sequence against President Franklin Roosevelt talking about the importance of youth, and the movie brings you around to understanding that young people in the teenage years have been used as crucial pawns in war and politics. Shaping the minds of the young is a way to control the future.
In spite of playful material, much of Teenage has to do with exploitation and alienation. Children riding freight trains in the Great Depression, young boys enlisting in World War I, to be blown up in the trenches and the mud. A teenage World War I soldier, country unstated, sits shirtless and twitches uncontrollably.
Teenage is then capped by shots of teenagers shrieking over the first teen idol, Frank Sinatra, in 1945, and an article in The New York Times called “A Teenage Bill of Rights.” After all the misuse of young people the film shows, this must be a good idea.
I finished the film unsure of my own reactions. It’s beautiful and frightening and jumbled; a mélange of play and terror, of the simultaneous joy and horror of belonging. If the film is a meditation, the way to absorb is also to meditate.