Teenage

Elizabeth Raiss as a 1940s Teenager.

H’m, one might think the LAST thing the world would need is a fawning paean to its most coddled, catered-to, reflexively narcissistic demographic, and yet, here one is.

For the better part of a century (in the Western world) each generation of adolescents has contributed its own pieces of bubble-gum to the swelling boulder-ball, debasing and trivializing our culture more and more with each succeeding wave, to the point where it’s now necessary for sun-glass wearing Presidential candidates to play saxophones and talk about their underwear on television in order to get elected (and that was 20 years ago). Some time ago our primary national mission became to have a good time. I routinely see men old enough to be grandfathers riding around on skateboards or scooters wearing tee shirts with cartoons on them. On the way, where? To their very serious jobs bringing about world peace and curing cancer, no doubt. The Duchess calls them “circus chimps”.

All day long, from dawn until dusk, our entire media landscape, all of our marketing messages, all mass culture (including the political) kowtows to the tyrannical, infantile demands of youth culture. But what is it? As Matt Wolf, maker of the new documentary Teenage, rightly points out, it is a new invention, born over the course of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, Wolf’s 77 film minute film does virtually nothing to illuminate why this new phenomenon came into being when it did, or why it happened at all.

In the early years of the twentieth century, there was still no social category for those in the state between childhood and majority. Your role was either “kid” or ‘adult”. You could be an old kid, or a young adult, but there was no third way. A great many forces converged in the 20th century to create a new conception, a label, for those in-between years. New technologies, modern marketing techniques, economic prosperity, Orwellian government…a long list, and it would have made an interesting movie.  Some of these areas are touched on in the film, but in a manner so superficial and occasionally wrong-headed that I think you would learn more about the subject by huffing nitrous oxide.

Apparently, the film is based on an eponymous 2007 book,  by Jon Savage. I haven’t read this book, but that’s my advice anyway: read books. It’s intrinsically more educational. Cinema is better at emotion, and that is what is catered to here. And here is where I pause to praise elements of the film. It is a gorgeous, thrilling ride, sort of a 77 minute long music video, with occasional narration, lots of truly incredible, rare stock footage, and even more terrifically DOCTORED footage.

You heard right. Much of the audio-visual material is ORIGINAL stuff, starring actors in video segments distressed to look like historical film. I won’t lie to you. This is the best “period-looking” stuff I believe I have ever seen. The art direction is tremendous: clothes, hairstyles, cars, locations, and even acting techniques are all REALLY accurate. On the other hand, it IS fake. And I didn’t see that slightly important fact mentioned ANYWHERE. I imagine it’s in small type somewhere in the closing credits. So what do we think the ratio of MISeducation to education is going to be as a result of this film? Somewhere very close to 100%, would be my guess.

The script, what there is of it, blurs all distinctions. We go from poor kids working in factories to an unbelievably misguided passage about the decadence of the super-rich in Europe in the 1920s. As presented, it looks like the same events are happening to the same people. Similarly, political distinctions are erased, so we watch the Hitler Youth march alongside shots of the Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps. In the film’s most egregious moment, a speech by FDR is followed in the very next shot by 10,000 Hitler Youth with arms upraised, intoning “Sieg Heil”. I really don’t know what conclusion to draw from that sophomoric stunt other than that the film maker intends to equate some kind of moral equivalency between FDR and Hitler. Are YOU a teenager, Mr. Wolf?

Like I said, this was a very good music video. I recommend it highly at the level of style alone, and on that basis, it should appeal very much to teenagers and those with the mentalities of ones. Anyone who seeks to actually learn about the historical forces this movie purports to treat of will need to go elsewhere.

Teenage opens tonight at Sunshine Landmark Cinema

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