Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Naming it: Matt Wolf's doc, TEENAGE, traces the moniker/history of an altered state--adolescence

Hello? If the term teenage is relatively new, that state-of-being and its concerns have been around at least since the time of Romeo & Juliet. For some reason, however, director and co-writer (with Jon Savage, from his book on the subject) Matt Wolf decided to make a documentary all about... what? I'm not exactly sure. Ostensibly Wolf & Savage want to explore the coming of the "teenager" -- which supposedly occurred around the turn of the 20th Century, though the name itself arrived closer to mid-century -- along with the changes all this presaged.

To manage this, Mr. Wolf, pictured at left, picks out the adolescents of three countries -- Britain, Germany and the USA -- and follows a few of them from around the beginning of the 20th Century onwards. Why only these three countries? Well, why not? You gotta start somewhere. And so we do. The filmmakers offers up everything from the Boy Scouts (of both Britain and America) and Britain's "bright young things" to America's roaring '20s flappers and 1940s jitterbuggers. They're all here, along with a lot more, and they're singing and dancing and goose-stepping up a storm (yes, we get Germany's Hitler Youth, too). To what purpose, I'm not certain.

Part of the filmmakers' point, I think, is that youth usually foments change in a culture, and this is certainly true. So we see some of England's kids at the end of World War I offering up homosexuality, bisexuality and any kind of "other" sex you might want, while the much more uptight America has to incorporate sex into its dance crazes -- swing and such. And Germany? Well, it places all its youthful energy into conquering the world and exterminating the Jews. Beware the political leader who so insistently courts the young.

If German youth had a lot of answer for, America get its black eye via its own Black population (that it is still trying to figure out how to deal with, whether it's a ghetto inhabitant or a mixed-race President). We hear about the "sub-debs" and the Teen-age Bill of Rights (from 1945), and we end around the start of the Atomic Age. (Although, in a movie that tries to cram in everything, we also get that famous shot of the student in front of the tank in China's Tiananmen Square).

In terms of style, Wolf fills his film with some terrific archival footage, but also, I believe, does some visual "re-creations, using voice-overs by actors such as Ben Wishaw and Jena Malone. These are the least successful portions of the film, falling somewhere between documentary and narrative, and ending up much less energized than most of that fine archival footage. Due to the slap-dash, all-over-the-place, toss-in-anything-that-might-apply nature of the movie, Teenage left me less than satisfied, though I did appreciate some of its stunning images (above and below), sprightly pace and short (78-minute) running time.

But if you're really interested in teens in various countries around the world, how their music informs and adds to their culture and how their attitudes of rebellion and protest can make waves (that sometime sink those teen rebels), I heartily suggest you watch movies such as Britain's Bright Young Things, America's Hair and/or the under-seen Swing Kids, Iran's No One Knows About Persian Cats and especially Russia's Hipsters for a crash course in the connections between kids, culture, rebellion and music.

Meanwhile, Teenage -- from Oscilloscope -- opens this Friday, March 14, at the Landmark Sunshine, and the following Friday, March 21, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's NoHo 7 -- after which it will hit another ten cities around the country. Click here, then scroll down a bit, to see all currently scheduled playdates.

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