based on the book by Jon Savage
2013 • 77 minutes • Oscilloscope Laboratories
How many ways can you actually make a documentary?
I mean, in that most perfect world, one would assume the genre variations are practically infinite. IFC’s loving parody Documentary Now! has found six ways to riff on the genre, with more to come in its second season. (I haven’t seen a frame of that series and I want to see it so bad.) And yet, most mainstream documentaries tend to stick to the talking heads (be it interviews or readings from primary sources) and footage (be it a primary source or a reconstruction) model.
Teenage sticks to that model as well, but just barely. The readings from primary sources are thrown into a blender and poured into a handful of vaguely distinct archetypes—a white American girl, a white British boy, an African-American boy, and a white German girl—all voiced by professional and, in the cases of Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, high-profile actors. These archtypes end up functioning as a pack of royal teen wes, staying the same age from the 1900s to the 1950s (the eras Matt Wolf and company have contemporary footage of). Their words are paraphrased from primary sources in a script meant to hit the high points of Jon Savage’s original book, except when they’re taken from the autobiographies of contemporary teenagers. Those segments are illustrated not with the original footage dug up for the film, but recreations that are only distinguishable as such by their well-fed actors and slightly too high quality.
It’s all coming at you fast and furious, utilizing a score by Bradford Cox rather than any period music. The editing and pacing are so breakneck that Teenage is a disorienting experience, much like adolescence itself. Matt Wolf has described his film as “living collage”, but it comes off as far more zine than scrapbook, dedicated to its atmosphere and aesthetic in a haphazard way than the bulk of Savage’s findings. This is nowhere more evident than in the documentary’s end, as clips of the last fifty years in teendom crowd the screen. The basic premise—youth movements set the stage for adolescents to become a market force of their own and therefore valuable in the eyes of capitalism—is there, but it’s much more a work of, appropriately, mood.
And that makes it feel, weirdly, not like a documentary. Not so much because it strays from the formula, but because all of this feels like a gloss on Savage’s thought-provoking work instead of a ballast. I am most likely biased, having read Teenage before watching this documentary, but I think it says something that Teenage only really sings when it slows down to dramatize specific adolescents’ lives. The life of Hitler youth and Nazi propagandist Melita Maschmann is briefly dramatized, hauntingly, as a passage from her memoir, Account Rendered, is read. The life of Warren Wall, a black American Boy Scout, is also presented, adapted from an interview with Wall by sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. Perhaps it’s the fact that both teenagers went with the flow of their societies that makes them such fascinating case studies—Maschmann’s wholehearted embrace of the Hitler Youth and Wall’s struggle to be seen as respectable in the eyes of whites even as he suffers indignities and prejudice. The teenager as rebel is built into the market model; the teenager as negotiating soul is far more eternal and far more interesting.
Ultimately, I don’t think it quite works, especially if you haven’t read Jon Savage’s Teenage and can’t substitute in what the film lacks. But it’s an interesting experiment, and one that I heartily applaud Matt Wolf and his collaborators for. Documentary can sometimes feel like formula instead of genre, and I appreciate any attempts to broaden its horizons.
I watched this film on Netflix.