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Friday, April 18, 2014

Smells Like Teen Spirit: Q&A with Teenage Director Matt Wolf

Posted By on Fri, Apr 18, 2014 at 2:00 PM

  • Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
  • Still image from Teenage

It's hard to imagine that there was ever a time when teenagers weren't the center of the universe.

We live in a world that's constantly looking to youth -- take the endless stretch of Gap ads along the walls of public transportation stations, they're aimed at the promise of eternal youth through the purchase of acid-wash denim. And, from the films of the French New Wave to the musings of pop songstress Lorde, many aspects of art would be void of their requisite intrigue and excitement without an appreciation for adolescent angst. Simply put, teenagers, with their ever-evolving trends and unpredictable issues of the dermatological kind, are major players in the global economy.

Teenagers demand our attention and so it comes as a surprise to learn that the very idea of teenagers, as we now know it, is a unique creation of the early 20th-century that has since seeped into every fissure of our collective consciousness. That's where filmmaker Matt Wolf comes in with his evocative new documentary Teenage, shedding light on an otherwise forgotten chapter in history.

The film, opening today for a limited, week-long run at the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema, plays like a scrapbook montage of heavily-filtered Instagram photos and footage illustrating the span of time from World War I until just before the first thrust of Elvis' pelvis, which is the time when teenagers carved out their identity, separating themselves from children and adults.

SF Weekly caught up with director Matt Wolf to discuss his critically-acclaimed film as well as his Bay Area upbringing and teenage dreams.

How did this project first come into fruition?

I was a longtime fan of Jon Savage. I had read his book England's Dreaming which you may know as the definitive history of punk rock and so when told me about Teenage, I was really intrigued because I'm obsessed with hidden histories and forgotten biographies and this whole premise that there's this pre-history to teenagers.

Your film is different from most documentaries in that it doesn't rely on talking heads in order to tell the story. You've instead used archival footage as a way to cleverly propel the story forward. What influenced the film's stylistic approach?

When I read the book I was really struck by Jon's style of writing and I felt that his punk perspective was coloring his depiction of early twentieth century history and it made me think, "Well what if I made a different kind of historical film -- one that kind of broke away from the conventions of PBS or Ken Burns and tried something different?"

I think part of it was analyzing the types of historical films that do exist, most of which take a fairly academic approach in the sense that they present historical information and explain historical context with historians and experts and then archival footage illustrates that material somewhat literally. That is a very effective in an educational form of film making and sometimes can be a brilliant way to tell a story but I thought that the subject matter I'm dealing with is very rebellious and there's an emotional intensity to adolescence. How can I capture that? I felt that it was important to break away from that model of having experts explain history but to have young people express themselves because I found that so often young voices were excluded from the official histories. I love how in Jon Savage's book he used so many firsthand accounts and quotes from actual teenagers.

The form of it I think is kind of rebellious. The sense of a cascade of archival imagery and also bringing to life these four adolescent figures who I see as real rebels but in very different ways. I saw them as archetypal rebels but the means in which they were expressing themselves were so different. I used recreations to bring those characters to life and, as you know, those recreations blend seamlessly with the archival and that I think was a rebellious structure as well.

How closely did you work with Jon Savage?

We actually worked together really closely all the way from the beginning archival research phase all the way through the edit. He co-wrote the script with me and supplied so many of the firsthand quotes that we used throughout the script.

What was the overall collaboration like between the two of you?

Well Jon's a great sport partially because he's worked on other films before. He recently worked on the Joy Division documentary that was made by the band and so he's very collaborative in the regard and I think we're interested in the same kind of experiments that I was interested in. He was happy to break away from the traditional mold and so see the film as its own thing that was separate from the book. I think there was also excitement on his part in having the book have this kind of second wave of renewed interest because of this film.

Oscilloscope Laboratories is such a unique distributor of independent film that has been on the radar since Wendy and Lucy. When did they jump onboard with the release of Teenage?

We met with them early on when we were making the film and looking for partners. We didn't start working together in the production phase but there was a dialogue about the project that was happening for a long time and they acquired it when it was screening at film festivals.

We premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and it was after Hot Docs, another film festival that we played at, that the conversation started happening about releasing the film. It's been awesome actually. I feel like they are really collaborative and hands-on in terms of the way they release films. I've heard horror stories of other directors who don't get to collaborate in a meaningful way with their distributors, but they are amazing and awesome partners. I feel like their ethos kind of matches the ethos of the film in a really nice way too.

The film has a way of making the past feel contemporary. What can you say on that point?

That's great. That's certainly the effect I'm going after is to make old things feel new. I think a lot of it is in the style of the film making. The use of contemporary music also makes for some interesting stuff but I think so many of the patterns in the film repeat themselves in that a lot of the ways adults deal with young people today is not so different from the way that they treated youth in the first half of the twentieth century.

One of the things that audiences might take away from this film is that someone like Adolf Hitler will inevitably get a hold of the youth if society at large chooses to not acknowledge them. Any thoughts on that observation?

If anything, he actually really did acknowledge the young. He recognized their power and he put them at the center of his political plan and so he really empowered young people. Young people are prone to black and white modes of thinking and they are rebellious by nature. The political system that was in place by Germany had failed them and here was a political leader who was promising solutions and who was listening and including youth in his politics. That was the dangerous fate for the youth that was involved in Nazi Germany.

Could you tell us about your own teenage years and describe the ways in which your rebellious spirit took flight at that age?

I'm 31 and grew up in San Jose. I was super political as a teenager and was involved in a lot of gay activism when I was in high school. I worked with a nonprofit called the Gay Straight Alliance Network that's still up and doing lots of awesome stuff in the Bay Area and beyond. I was also obsessed with music and film and I would go to the Streetlight Records in San Jose and to the independent film theaters to see art house films. I had those two different sides to myself, this kind of fascination with art and also a kind of dedication to politics when I was young.

How would you characterize your own youth and did any sensibilities from that age come across in the film?

I think dreaminess. I don't think I would characterize myself as dreamy as a teenager but I think that was a big part of listening to music and watching films. It was kind of like getting into my head and being creative and imagining a different type of reality because I was so angsty when I was young. I think that sense of dreaminess comes across in the film and it's a reflection of how maybe a lot or all teenagers feel.

What did you dream about as a teenager?

I wanted to move to New York and be a filmmaker. That was my big dream when I was a teenager.

Mission accomplished, wouldn't you say?

Yeah, totally. I think a big aspect of it was a dreaminess about being a creative person and being in New York City and having an alternative kind of life in a way and not going down the conventional path. Those are sentiments that I heard resonating in the material that I was doing.

What do you hope audiences take away from Teenage?

I know the film is very experiential but I hope that on an idea level people take away a different attitude toward youth. I think that sometimes adults think that young people are apathetic or disengaged from what's going on around them and just completely plugged into their devices, but what I found out is that every generation says that about the youth. In fact, young people are doing important and meaningful things and it's just hard to recognize it in real time as it's unfolding, so I hope people look at the young with a sense of optimism and confidence as opposed to disdain.

Teenage opens today at the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema for one week only.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF, Jonathan at @jonramos17, and like us on Facebook.

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Jonathan Ramos

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