'Anne Frank Would Have Been a Belieber'

3.21.2014

By Jerry Portwood

Director Matt Wolf and writer Jon Savage discuss the dominance of youth culture with the release of the documentary Teenage

Rare photos of Wandervogels appear in 'Teenage'

Our society is in the thrall of youth culture. Miley's tongue and Justin Bieber's exploits are what get the clicks; the eyeballs forever looking for another young, nubile thing to captivate their free time—an assuage against desk monkey boredom. But as dominant as it is, it's wasn't always so important. As director Matt Wolf and author Jon Savage prove in their documentary, Teenage.

The super-talented gay filmmaking duo have crafted a fascinating short history lesson that should be viewed by everyone who thinks they know it all when it comes to what's cool in pop culture. A product of post-industrialization, teenagers began to gain currency in the beginning of the 20th Century, and Teenage manages to follow this timeline by cobbling together archival footage, as well as using fictional teens of prime eras as a narrative thread. We sat down with Wolf and Savage to find out how they managed to wade through all the material to come up with such a powerful portrait of adolescence in all its glory—and potential danger.

On Teenagers and “Selling Out”
Matt Wolf: I think consumerism is a form of control and, at the end of the day, we say "teenage" is a compromised solution. We got the things we were looking for in magazines, clubs, and friends. But the adults still have control.

That text is over the image of 1950s teens shopping in a store called The Teenage Store. And I think that within this compromise solution it's a model for youth that works; it does have a basis in consumerism. Young people can express themselves but are still depended on their parents for the money. In that model, consumerism does provide a certain way for adults to control young people.
I would argue that there are quite a few young people who are really concerned about selling out and thinking about ways and rejecting the kind of commercial conformity is around that. Not all young people are imagining a new kind of style for the future but there are a lot of them who are.

On Justin Bieber, Anne Frank, and the Power of Pop Culture

MW: Anne Frank would have been a Belieber. I think people from the Anne Frank camp know that (although this is a poor choice of words), she was obsessed with pop culture. At one point, Anne Frank was in our film, because she did after all wrote the most famous teenage diary of all time. We extracted the most famous teens out, but she was the last one because it's so good but people didn’t react well from her.

People have preconceived notions about her, and people have there own relationship to the Holocaust. This isn't a film about the Holocaust, it's a film about the different ways the models in which youth were dealt with. But she has a profound looming presence over this film in a way and yeah she would have been a Belieber, and I think we also groomed Justin Beiber to be the kind of narcissist that he is. We've manufactured him as an objet that young people can consume and so I don't get why people then condemn him for reflecting that. I don't think he is wrong, I think she would have been a fan of Justin Beiber in her own time.

Jon Savage: I totally agree, and that goes back to about what fascinates me about the Hamburg Swings. Parenthetically, Anne Frank was in the film until late and we had to cut; there is a great quote from her at the end of the film that we eventually cut out also. 

On Why Teenagers Are Drawn to Activism and Politics

JS: There's also a queer thing as well: Both Matt and I, in similar ways and different ways, are kind of political. Matt was more of an activist younger than I was, but I'm pretty ra-ra-ra now about gay rights. When I was younger, I was very interested in feminism, and I was old enough to be part of the counter culture as a kid. Really, one of the stories in Teenage is this process of disfranchisement, so the teenage of the second-stage of life is groping toward some kind of freedom. You have to suffragettes so you have the start of feminism; you have the start of the movement towards civil rights—which is why its very important for us to have one section on all that fabulous footage of Harlem in the 1940s which is amazing.

On Why Straight Guys Have an Unintentional Homoerotic Bent

MW: Those [France protests from last year] are the most homoerotic anti-gay thing I have seen. It's these muscular little guys that have writing on their bodies. Jon wrote about this, the homophobia in the punk scene; it has an intense attraction for gay men.

JS: Punk is very complicated, so lets unpick that. My standard line is now, which I particularly use with Americans, you always get very macho about punk. And I just say: “Do you know where the world comes from?” It comes from the younger guy in prison who took the wang up the bum. 

How can you be macho about a movement, really? The Sex Pistols sung "bald little faggot," and at the time, I didn’t think of it because I was oppressed and could speak out about it, but now, listening to it, I don't like it at all. Also, punk in the UK was very Puritan; it had a disgust about sex, it was a disgust about all things. In fact, a lot of people involved in punk rock were gay. I went to L.A. in '78 and hung out with The Screamers, two of whom were gay, and nobody talked about it. We were all absolutely horrible to each other, and we kind of got on. It was weird: Nobody talked about one of the most important things in our lives.

Teenage is currently playing in New York City and Los AngelesWatch the trailer below:

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