Teenage Riot: A Conversation with Matt Wolf, Jon Savage and Jason Schwartzman
Youth culture didn’t start in the ’60s. In the parlance of today’s teens, the appropriate response to this might be “duh.” Teenage, director Matt Wolf’s artful new non-fiction film, uncovers the “hidden history” of youth culture and locates its origins in various youth movements in the first half of the 20th century. From German Swing kids to American Victory Girls, the film offers a veritable lexicon of lost teen vocabulary (“teen canteen,” “buzz bucket,” “boogie in the strut hut”), and reminds us that the invention of teenager culture depended on the invention of a new language — and one that is continually evolving.
Language, of course, is also integral to the development of the film, which is the product of a close collaboration between the director and British critic Jon Savage, whose 2007 book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945 serves as the basis for the film, and from which Savage drew heavily in writing the film. Savage, who is perhaps best known for England’s Dreaming, his 1991 chronicle of British punk, first began thinking about a project on the youth culture back in 1980, when it nearly became a BBC television documentary. It took writing a book and meeting Wolf in 2008 before the film version began to coalesce.
Focusing on the period 1904-1945, Teenage weaves together rare archival footage, sly recreations, and “mini-biographies” of four teens from England, Germany and America into a historical panoramic. Wolf assembled an impressive team to help realize his vision, including lead archivist Rosemary Rotondi (Inside Job), production designer Inbal Weinberg (Blue Valentine), cinematographer Nick Bentgen (Northern Light) and editor Joe Beshenkovsky (Objectified). The film features voiceovers by actors Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, among others, as well as a near-constant electronic score by Bradford Cox (the creative force behind Deerhunter and Atlas Sound).
Jason Schwartzman came on board in 2012 as executive producer — his first time in this role. He and Wolf met several years earlier when the two made a short film for the New York clothing store Opening Ceremony. In addition to his acting career, Schwartzman has pursued various musical endeavors over the past decade, including playing drums for the L.A.-based band Phantom Planet and writing music for his current solo project Coconut Records.
Following the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last Saturday, the director, writer and producer sat down with Filmmaker for a lively discussion about the film’s dreamy take on history, the significance of The Wizard of Oz, and the prophetic fulfillment of punk culture.
Filmmaker: Congratulations on the film. What’s the reception been like?
Wolf: I think people like it.
Savage: For me, it’s just great we got it made. We had a full house and we had great questions afterward.
Wolf: It’s always funny to finish something on Monday and to show it on Saturday. But it’s cool. It’s been a long time in the making. It’s exciting to share it, especially here in New York.
Schwartzman: Watching it last night was just fun for me, just knowing how hard they’ve worked on it — Jon with the book, which is a whole separate decades-long journey, and all the work Matt did on the film. I’m just thinking what a victory it got made! There are certain movies that can get made the way an airplane today is made — basically you just need a guy to land it. This movie is like a manual airplane that Matt and Jon handmade.
Filmmaker: A very fine-tuned one.
Schwartzman: Yeah, it’s like a bicycle airplane.
Savage: Made of balsa wood! [Laughs]
Wolf: There’s no blueprint for it.
Filmmaker: Jon, your book begins with a quote by John Lennon: “America used to be the big youth place in everybody’s imagination. America had teenagers and everywhere else just had people.” Tell me about that.
Savage: Lennon’s a fascinating character and it was a fascinating moment in his life when he said that in 1966. But it does make the point that for British people, the inspiration, certainly — and I’d include myself in this as a Baby Boomer — the main cultural influence on kids in Britain is America. After the Second World War, America was the ideal. This, then, goes back to why [Teenage] was made in the way that it was. I started working on this whole project in 1980, and it went through a whole process of being a television pilot which got canned. When I finished the book [in 2007], I knew that, because of the formatting of television, it needed to be a film and it needed to be made in America. It’s an American story. When Matt got in touch with me, I was really excited because I thought: New York – that’s great! America – that’s great! Young filmmaker – that’s great! And then we were off!
Wolf: I didn’t want to make a multi-part, expert-lead television documentary. I wanted to make an art film that took its inspiration from Jon’s book, but found a new language to deal with the historical documentary form. And I was really inspired by what I perceived as the punk perspective that Jon had in his treatment of history in the book. I was looking for a kind of punk aesthetic to treat the filmmaking. Jon and I early on talked about this premise of “living collage.” In the ’70s, he saw punks cutting up thrift clothes from previous eras, from the 40s, 50s and 60s, and reassembling them with safety pins into something new. That feels like a really cool analogue for an impulse in all youth culture — picking and choosing inspirations from the past and reprocessing them as something new. It mirrors what we did in this film — lifting these voices, these stories, these images and clips from previous youth cultures and making a new work of creative non-fiction, that, while it’s about the past, also reflects on themes that are relevant today and in the future.
Savage: And also we knew that we wanted to take you there, that [the film] should not be objective and that we wanted to take [the viewer] into the experience, which we’ve all been through, of being a teenager. And to make it very immediate.
Wolf: And dreamy.
Schwartzman: I’m going to quote myself here, but earlier today I said this thing, and I think it might be right. Let’s say you had read Jon’s book and you walked down the street and you bumped your head and passed out. The movie Teenage would be the dream that you’d have.
Filmmaker: Or if you fell asleep reading Jon’s book in bed…
Schwartzman: What I mean is that the movie’s not filled with dates and subtitles and information, as much as a typical movie of this kind would be. It’s dreamy and swirling. Images are cut and pasted and out of context, in order to tell different stories. Also musically, it’s very designed.
Wolf: I do think of the film as having the experience of a record. You could have an experience where it just washes over you, and that’s fine for a particular viewer. But if you listen to the voiceover that drives the storytelling, it deepens and enhances the intellectual experience of [the film]. I find that to be true of music. I often don’t listen to the lyrics and have my own personal experience, but when I do listen to the lyrics, it deepens that connection.
Savage: And also this goes back to our own personal biographies. We’re all real music fans. We’re all very, very involved with music on an everyday level. I mean, Jason had a band when he was a kid. Matt and I have been passionate about music for a long time. Also, music is essential to the story the film tells. Music is both a commercial hook for youth culture and also an expression of youth values. And then there are the eruptions of youth music in the 20s and 30s. One of the major points in the film to me is when Gene Krupa comes in with those “jungle drums,” and then also later on, there’s that incredible moment when Sinatra’s at the Paramount Theater [the 1944 Columbus Day riot] — there’s this great “Whooosh!” and you get this sense of release.
Wolf: And to me, the German Swing storyline is the synthesis of all the themes of Teenage. It’s where the political stakes of being young crashes with the ingenuity of teenagers to invent new styles. So you have these kids importing American music and fashion, and they’re doing it in a way that subversively rebels against the Nazi regime. It’s very high-risk, and it’s very inspiring to me, because it’s not activism in the way that we typically think about it, and music is the center of that.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that we define periods in our lives by the music we listen to. The artist Vitto Acconci once said that he never revisits music he listened to at earlier periods in his life. He listens exclusively to electronica now, apparently.
Wolf: It’s very generational. Our film is about generational gaps and the cycling of experiences through different generations, and the foundation of youth culture has an impact on the present and into the future. I think that a huge way we define generational experience is by music.
Savage: But then again, I completely reject that. I’m much older than these guys — I’m 59 — but I’m right between the middle on this. I like new electronic music, hence the film’s score. Matt and I share a love of music that blurs between electronic and indie. I also listen to music that I listened to when I was 13, 14, 15, and I still think “Yeah, great, I made a good choice!” I still find things in it. So, you can do both. But then it’s a question of keeping in touch with your inner teenager. I mean, I’m not a teenager and I don’t want to be a teenager. But I do want to be in touch with how I felt, because it’s the formation of my personality and what I’ve gone on to do in my life.
Wolf: But listening to music across different periods and having it resonate in the now mirrors some of the effects we’re going after in the film. I mean, the main filmmaking strategy is taking vintage imagery and combining it with contemporary music. The most basic concept of the movie is making old stuff resonate now through the use of music.
Schwartzman: Even within that, parenthetically, the contemporary music that is being juxtaposed is also infused with old sound. It’s not like just hitting play on a record that came out today and pairing it with something old.
Wolf: It’s very period-blurring.
Schwartzman: Early on in the movie, there’s a very abstract piece of music playing and mixed in you hear sort of an old-timey saloon piano piece. It’s woven in beautifully. It’s like a dream. Or that moment just as you’re falling asleep and things begin to mix together.
Wolf: Yeah, things come in and out.
Savage: I love that moment.
Schwartzman: Yeah, it’s the best moment.
Savage: Have you ever had that thing where you’re just falling asleep and crazy words come into your brain?
Schwartzman: Like what?
Filmmaker: It tends to be images for me.
Savage: It’s often words, and if you could actually write it down, it would be the most insane thing.
Filmmaker: You’d have a Dada poem.
Wolf: That is an aspect of the sound design. Almost all the archival footage in the film is silent, but the film is intensely designed on a sound level. But, our sound designer Mark Philips didn’t just literally illustrate everything with foley. The film has a mixture of literal sounds but [Mark created] highly impressionistic sonic sketches [that include] musical elements and combine the actual score to create a full soundscape.
Schwartzman: It would be great to have the whole mix on an album you could listen to.
Filmmaker: That’s what Godard did with a few of his soundtracks.
Wolf: We should do a double vinyl LP!
Wolf: That would be cool.
Savage: When I was at college, I was the president of the film society, and I used to show movies in my room. One night I showed Metropolis and used the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request as the soundtrack. It was great!
Wolf: When I was in Wales working with Jon, at night we’d watch Big Brother with Closed Captioning and listen to compact compilations. [Laughs]
Schwartzman: [To Savage] You know the Pink Floyd–Wizard of Oz thing? Do you think it was intentional or just a coincidence?
Savage: I think it’s a total coincidence. It’s such a great thing, the two together.
Schwartzman: But it’s insanely coincidental! You hear “Black” and then the witch appears…
Savage: The Wizard of Oz is also a phantom presence in Teenage.
Filmmaker: I thought about that in relation to the color footage.
Wolf: It’s featured more in Jon’s book than in the movie.
Schwartzman: By the way, I did get to see the Ruby Slippers. In L.A., they’re opening The Academy Museum and they have the Ruby Slippers are there in a box. But what’s amazing is that they’re not ruby colored! They’re more pink. It’s because of the Technicolor in the film. Red would have been too much.
Savage: The color in that film is insane! That was the first film I ever saw. My mother had to comfort me when the witch came on. I was only five. [Laughs] In the UK, the song “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” has just been banned by the BBC. It’s been rising up the charts. It’s what everybody who didn’t like Mrs. Thatcher went out and downloaded! It’s a really great song. The Wizard of Oz is an archetype. It’s kind of a precursor to the Sinatra stuff [in Teenage]. A lot of the youth culture stuff is signaled [in the movie] by kids getting out into the streets en mass. So we have the [Rudolph Valentino] funeral, which is very important, in August 1926. We couldn’t find footage of The Wizard of Oz opening, which was insane. But we have the Paramount [footage with Sinatra], which really seals the deal. [The audience] is just so obvious and so powerful and so visible that it is necessary to conceptualize and coin a new word for what this youth culture is. And it all begins with young women.
Filmmaker: How do you mean?
Savage: The power of young women as the audience manifesting and going crazy over Sinatra. That to me is a key moment.
Wolf: Well, the passions of adolescent girls are what empowered youth as a consumer class and lead to their recognition as teenagers. It really is a story of the power of young women to influence the broader culture. It’s one aspect.
Savage: Guys got into it later.
Filmmaker: It seems that the film is really about the tension between indoctrination, of one kind or another, and individuation, and those two things coming together in different ways.
Wolf: I think the story of what happened to youth in Germany is really fascinating. Of course, there have been a lot of films about Germany and Nazism and World War II. The reason the story of the Nazis is important here is that Hitler both empowered and destroyed youth like no other figure in history. We were really interested in the youth movement of the Wandervogel, which was a back-to-nature movement in the ’20s. That footage is extremely rare. Youth leading youth, which is the basic premise, is a very powerful concept. What’s uncanny is that Hitler saw that model as a successful model to recruit youth into his social movement.
Schwartzman: The Hitler quote that appears onscreen in the film is the most terrifying moment. [“When an opponent declares, I will not come over to your side, I calmly say, your child belongs to us already.”]
Savage: It’s chilling.
Wolf: In Melita’s [one of the four teens profiled in the movie] diary, she frames her experience as a form of rebellion against her Weimar generation parents. She’s rebelling to join the Hitler Youth. It’s this organization that’s embraced this model of youth leading youth. The young people feel incorporated into the social planning of the government, and the envisioning of a new future for their country. It turns into an evil and destructive thing. That deception and enslavement is a very sad and important way in which our society treated youth.
Filmmaker: But there’s also cultural indoctrination, in the sense of kids looking at their peers and seeing what their listening to, and essentially learning how to be a teenager by watching others.
Savage: One of the things we all talked about was how you leave the world of your parents and then you join the world of your peers. And then maybe you react against your peers. That’s when real individuation begins to occur.
Wolf: To me, the film is about the struggle for young people to have the most basic forms of recognition and to be treated as equals. It’s about the early stages of the youth movement, and it should be looked at alongside other civil rights struggles. A big part of the “Teen-Age Bill of Rights” (1945) is, as you say, about individuation, and about the right to define oneself, and to separate from the expectations and the pressures adults, governments, and police exert on young people.
Filmmaker: It’s about how the adult world fears youth.
Wolf: Youth from the get-go is seen as this social problem, and the film is about how adults try to control them and young people’s desire to define themselves and to have a certain kind of freedom. By the end of the film, “teenage” is this new idea. It’s a kind of compromise solution that allows for adults to have certain measures of control, but for young people to still express themselves, through the magazines, clothes, and records they want to consume.
Savage: The first real historical separation of a second stage of life is actually to be found in criminology, and is to be found in the term “juvenile delinquent,” which first came into use in the 1820s. It’s very much that thing that adults project their hopes and fears [on youth], depending on what their temperament is. If you’re upbeat, like I am, then you’re hopeful about kids. I think they’re great, and I think they should be listened to. I’m always interested to see what creative solutions they come up with. But if you’re bitter and afraid of the future, then you see kids as nightmares — everything going to hell in a hand basket — which of course it isn’t! It isn’t, is it? [Laughs]
Filmmaker: One of the most poignant stories for me in Teenage is that of Warren Wall, the African-American kid growing up in Harlem. It’s the one time when the film really gets at the alienation that we all feel as teenagers.
Wolf: All the other characters are very flamboyant, and their means of expression are so extreme. Warren is more of an everyday person. He’s very special because the official records of this period did not include the voices and experiences of people of color. It was a real struggle to find that imagery. The only written testimony of a young black person was in this sociological book, Negro Youth at the Crossroads, which had an extensive interview with Warren Wall. It was a very revealing and intimate account of what it was like to be young and black in the 1940s. It was a very racist time.
Savage: One of the reasons there was such turmoil in America during the Second World War was that a lot of African Americans were saying, “How can we be fighting for democracy when we’re not getting it here?” There was this huge tension caused by the ideal and the reality.
Filmmaker: In the film, the teenager’s room plays a big role. It’s the site of self-expression. Now we have Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, so I’m wondering where the important site for teenage identity is today. In other words, is the Facebook page the teenager’s bedroom in the digital age?
Savage: I think it’s still in the bedroom, though.
Schwartzman: I remember when blogs first came out and asking someone what they were like. His response was, “It’s like your locker at school.” And that totally made sense to me. I couldn’t wait to get a locker in school, and the second I got it I put all my favorite shit in there! It’s a similar thing: it’s private, it’s mine, if I open it maybe you’ll get a glimpse inside this world.
Savage: And see that I’m cool!
Filmmaker: It’s a space you’ve curated.
Schwartzman: You already know what’s in there. You want other people to look inside and see what’s there.
Wolf: The thing that I think is different today is that there’s a lot of pressure on young people, in curating their identities, to document themselves and there’s also a lot of expectation for instantaneous feedback, which creates a lot of anxiety. It’s a new form of anxiety.
Savage: From my point of view, we are now living in the science fiction future that was prophesized by punk, which is the acceleration of information, the total dominance of the media, and the entertainment and leisure industries in the economy, and how everything is totally sped up. And how everything has turned private and virtual.
Filmmaker: There’s a big show opening at the Met this summer on the fashion of punk.
Savage: I’m involved with it. I’ve written one of the catalogue essays and I’ve seen the catalogue, and it’s really great. It’s amazing to me how punk — which was such a small thing in New York and L.A. and Cleveland and London — still reverberates.
Wolf: It feels very resonant for me. And it takes on new meaning for each generation.