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Jon Savage
Jon SavageDaisy Walker

Matt Wolf vs Jon Savage

The filmmaker and the author on creating the ultimate portrait of the invention of youth

Taken from the January issue of Dazed and Confused:

With Teenage, based on punk poet-laureate Jon Savage’s account of the creation of “youth” in the years before rock’n’roll hit, New York filmmaker Matt Wolf has created a group biography of the kids that time never forgot. Using an ingenious combination of rare archive footage and modern reconstructions with a timeless soundtrack by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, the film tells the story of the young people between the turn of the 20th century and the end of World War II who, with their music, madness and miraculous lust for life, made “teenagehood” a category real enough to be named, bought and sold. We caught up with the two folklorists to find out more about the dream that’s so hard to beat.

Matt Wolf: In Peter Pan, there’s a famous passage: ‘To die would be an awfully big adventure.’ Visions of a legendary death had an early metaphorical significance for youth, particularly as they were entering World War I. They thought that war would be this kind of powerful adventure, and it’s really there that the experience of youth changes and they feel betrayed by the adult generation for using them as cannon fodder. It sets up the conflict that drives the film: young people trying to create their own world or mythologies, and adults trying to control or regiment them. 

Jon Savage: You’re really good Matt, this is really great! (both laugh) You’ve also got (Wilfred Owen’s) ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, and there’s all sorts of material from the early 20s of the rise of the idea of the generation, and indeed the generation gap.

“If you’re pessimistic, you think that young people are all listless internet-addicted junk-food addicts, and if you’re optimistic you think, as I believe, that young people are hardwired to find creative solutions to the problems faced by the world today” – Jon Savage 

Matt Wolf: I’ve always been interested in how things shift and change between generations, but also what doesn’t. Sometimes the real significance is in the things that don’t change. When thinking about this film I was looking at, say, images of 1920s flappers and putting contemporary music to it – it’s easy for me to project my own experience. Typically we look at these images and say, ‘Wow, that’s what our grandparents did when they were young.’ But what I want a viewer to do is look at flappers and say, ‘I am that flapper. I would be dressed like that, that’s how I would express myself.’ People know about punks and hippies and skaters and mallrats but one of my fascinations is telling the stories that have been overlooked, or are not mainstream heroes or icons, and that’s what led us to the four principal characters we focus on in the film: the ‘bright young thing’ Brenda Dean Paul, German swing fan Tommie Scheel, Hitler Youth member Melita Maschmann and African-American boy scout Warren Wall. Though they’re not famous at all, there’s a lot of depth and significance and together they form a portrait of the teenager that was about to be born.

Jon Savage: There’s also another kind of myth, which is that the powerful youth-culture performer is androgynous. You see this in Frank Sinatra, who was an androgynous figure very appealing to women. We also end with another myth: youth as harbinger and enactor of change. What kind of future are you going to get? If you’re pessimistic, you think that young people are all listless internet-addicted junk-food addicts, and if you’re optimistic you think, as I believe, that young people are hardwired to find creative solutions to the problems faced by the world today.

Matt Wolf: You know, people dismiss teenage rebellion as this emotional rite of passage, but it has a cultural and political dimension that leads towards real change, and that’s very universal. Sure, there are boring, conformist teenagers who don’t do anything and just sit there passively, but there are always weirder, smarter and more creative teenagers. They’re probably the type of youth featured in Dazed, or the type who start bands, who’re at the front of a protest and a political rally, who write something exceptional that’s published after their death – and it’s those people that we’re interested in. 

“Exceptional people exist and you cannot and should not ignore them. Whether anybody likes it or not, teenagers are the future and the messengers of change” – Jon Savage

Jon Savage: Obviously the great mass of adolescents do what they’re supposed to do, what their parents do, but exceptional people exist and you cannot and should not ignore them. Teenagers, whether anybody likes it or not, are the future and the messengers of change. If nothing changes you’ll get entropy, decay and ultimately death. That’s what happens to societies that don’t change. So we should celebrate the ability of young people to conceive of and create change.

Matt Wolf: It’s keeping the faith that young people have good ideas, instead of believing that all the good ideas have already been explored and that young people are just totally apathetic, as people have said since the 20s. I think the whole discourse about the future is 

Jon Savage: Right. The central western myth of youth is as a consumer, and that still holds today nearly 70 years after it was invented. So my question is, what are people going to do if they can’t shop? Is that definition linked to the wider problems that we face in climate change – limits of growth, unsustainability? Those are the issues young people are going to have to deal with during the next few decades. So there needs to be a new myth, in a way. The book and the film show you that the definition of youth that we understand is not automatic. Youth can be cruelled into nationalistic militaristic movements like the Hitler Youth, a youth organisation that was dedicated to militarism and genocide. So you have to be careful here: youth isn’t always the ideal fluffy consumer, sometimes they’ve been nationalistic little shits. (Silence) Hello? Well, that shut you up.

Matt Wolf: (laughs) No, I agree! When I started making the film I thought it would be an exploration of pop culture, but I saw how political the material was and it made me remember how political I was as a teenager. I was really involved in gay rights activism and I felt this sense that I was changing the course of history. Just looking at all the oppression that young people faced in the early 20th century made me realise that the youth movement should be looked at alongside other civil rights struggles.

Jon Savage: There was definitely a connection between the idea of youth being enfranchised with women’s rights,  then civil rights and, with particular relevance to you and I, gay rights.

Matt Wolf: My favourite narrative in the film is Tommie Scheel’s, because it’s young people using pop culture in politically subversive ways as a form of private activism, but they wouldn’t have ever thought of it that way. It’s young people doing what they do, just having fun, but in a deeper way that’s totally intuitive and ingenious.