THE centrality of youth to modern pop culture might have convinced us that the concept of the teenager emerged fully formed the moment the Second World War ended.
But as US filmmaker Matt Wolf’s new experimental documentary Teenage illustrates, it was much more complex than that. Tracing the evolution of Western youth from the turn of the 20th century to 1945, the film – a fluid mix of archival footage, vintage reconstructions, narrated diary entries and a modern score (by Deerhunter frontman Bradley Cox) – offers a fascinating, in-the-moment account of the way societal changes, intergenerational clashes and evolving attitudes towards adolescence shaped what we now think of as modern youth culture.
“What happened,” says Jon Savage, upon whose 2007 book Teenage: The Creation of Youth, the film is based, “was that in America and in various countries across Europe, youth began to be viewed as a problem, particularly as adolescence started to be perceived as a separate stage of life.
“All of a sudden it was a hiatus during which early teenagers had time to grow, instead of being tipped into child labour, which was prevalent at the time.” Savage – best known as the author of the punk history England’s Dreaming – spent seven years researching and writing the book, which was in turn inspired by his days chronicling the punk movement for various fanzines and music weeklies in his early twenties. “I was as astounded by the audiences as I was by the groups,” he says, recalling early gigs by The Sex Pistols.
“What the fans had done was take past youth culture styles from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties and sort of reassembled them with hand-made elements, ripping things up and sticking safety pins in things. They became a sort of a living collage. It made me think that there was a youth culture history.”
Now 60, Savage says he has no desire to hold onto or relive his own youth. Nevertheless, in writing the book and working on the film he’s maintained his optimism for the young, marvelling at the way every subsequent generation seems hardwired to deal with the world as they find it.
“When you’re that age, you see the world as it is,” he says. “And if you’ve got anything about you, you’ll try and change things for yourself, and maybe for other people too. That’s the way change happens. And change has to happen. Otherwise it’s entropy and decay.”
• Teenage is on selected release from tomorrow and will also screen as part of the Glasgow Youth Film Festival on 4 February.