Monday, September 16, 2013
Directed by Shane Salerno
Most of what makes J.D. Salinger one of the most celebrated writers of the Twentieth Century is his uncanny ability to translate the mental trauma of his own life and reflect it into his characters in such a way that it became so identifiable to the reader. Most teenagers who get around to reading The Catcher in the Rye feel in a lot of ways like they're reading about themselves. There's an intense, brewing anxiety, a fear of growing up and straight terror of the responsibilities of adulthood rippling throughout its pages. Yes, that is what makes Salinger so beloved... for the most part. But there is also the mystery of Salinger, a famed Howard Hughes-like recluse who would lock himself into a small bunker outside of his secluded home in Cornish, New Hampshire for weeks at a time, possibly writing but definitely not communicating with the outside world. Salinger, the new documentary from Shane Salerno, seeks to solve some of that mystery, with mixed results.
The press for Salinger has been surprisingly pushy, until you remember that it's being distributed by the Weinstein Company, and they're either extremely pushy with their films or they will never see the light of day, no in between. It promised scandal and intrigue, a glimpse into the writer's life that was unlike any that had been done before. And I guess I could say that the film informed me on a lot of facts within Salinger's life that I was not aware of. For instance, it's well known that he was a veteran of World War II, but I did not know that his first day of combat was on D-Day, and that he served right until V-E Day, nearly a full year of service. I also wasn't aware that Salinger had had a meeting with Ernest Hemingway in Paris in which Hemingway was given an advanced manuscript of Catcher In The Rye which he read and enthusiastically praised. But these are all anecdotal pieces of information, water cooler talk. What about J.D. Salinger the man?
Well, he was a man with an insufferably large ego, once claiming that he was the greatest writer since Herman Melville and stating that nobody alive (including his beloved hero Hemingway) could touch him. He was stubbornly obsessed with the control he would have over his work, once becoming ornery after an editor added a single comma to one of his stories. Also, the tales of his reclusivity may be overblown, since he made several appearances and calls to newspapers to announce his existence to the world (to quote one of several biographers in the film: "He was a recluse that like to pop up every once in a while to remind everyone that he was recluse.") Perhaps the biggest scandal comes from Salinger's apparent life-long obsession with teenaged girls. Into his fifties, it seems that Salinger only opined for woman before their eighteenth birthday and quickly lost interest soon after. It's a pattern throughout the film that's never really commented on directly, which is one of the film's biggest missed opportunities.
But after all, how surprising is it really that a grown man was obsessed with much younger women? And how surprising is it that he was overbearingly childish when it came to his work? Salinger focuses on these aspects of his life as if this makes him unique, but it really makes him like most men who were great artists. Salinger is too interested in telling an end-to-end biography that it steps over the juicier parts, like his early marriage to a Nazi collaborator soon after World War II. Everything is treated with the same importance, but not all events in his life were equal. I was left with a feeling like this was a documentary better suited for PBS (and have since learned that it will premiere as an episode of American Masters in early 2014) and not the big screen. It's chock-full of odd reenactments following a man that looked nothing like the author they were trying to portray, and several interviews with actors (Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman to a name a couple) that add nothing to the film really, other than being famous and having read Catcher In The Rye.
J.D. Salinger was indeed an interesting man. Perhaps, that's what gives Salinger it's biggest disappointment: it's not striking enough to really stand out. The film goes almost out of control with it's vision of Salinger as an American genius, that it hits you once you're leaving the theater, "Didn't this guy only write two short books?". The most interesting moments within the film came from novelist Joyce Maynard, whose affair with Salinger began, you guessed it, when she was eighteen years old and he was over fifty. She stayed with him in his home in Cornish and saw first hand his severe rituals and writing processes. She saw the vault with the thick, unpublished manuscripts. And in the end, she witnessed his violent temper as she accidentally brought the outside world into his little shell. It's one of the only times one of Salinger's affairs is told through the eyes of the woman involved. The big bomb that the film drops by its end is that all of Salinger's unpublished works will soon be released to the public - including more stories about Holden Caulfield and the Glass family - between 2015 and 2020.
Perhaps most of the world was at peace with not knowing all that much about Salinger. The movie seems to present a large handful of people who did, in fact, want the curtain pulled and for his private life to be within the public domain - exactly what J.D. Salinger would not want. But I couldn't help but feel like these were straw man arguments, and I began to realize that I myself wasn't that interested in learning the more sordid details of Salinger until I was met with the documentary's aggressive advertising campaign (to be sure, few documentaries have ever been pushed as hard on the public as this one has). It seems to me that waiting to read unpublished Salinger novels is a lot like wanting to listen to unreleased Nirvana tracks: the completist in me would love to get the experience under my belt, but hoping for work comparable to their career highlights seems silly. There's no way I'm hearing another Nevermind. I think both Salinger and his fans have enjoyed this two-and-a-half book relationship they've had with each other for the last fifty-plus years, and I'm not sure why Salinger is trying to convince us that we haven't.