A. O. Scott
5 September 2013
“Salinger,” the doorstop-thick new biography by David Shields and Shane Salerno, announces itself on the dust jacket as “the official book of the acclaimed documentary film” of the same title. (The film itself credits Paul Alexander’s biography of Salinger as its source.) “Acclaimed” is perhaps wishful thinking, but the most dubious words in that puffy phrase are “documentary film.” There are plenty of archival images and talking-head interviews, but “Salinger,” directed by Mr. Salerno, is less a work of cinema than the byproduct of its own publicity campaign. It does not so much explore the life and times of J. D. Salinger as run his memory and legacy through a spin cycle of hype. Salinger moved to the woods of New Hampshire partly to escape the intrusions and indignities of American celebrity culture. “Salinger” is that culture’s revenge.
Mr. Salerno, a dogged researcher and tireless interviewer, assembles his documentary material (supplemented by re-enactments and propelled by a throbbing, action-movie score) into a breathless story full of hyperbole and speculation. The resulting blend of reverence and character assassination is an almost perfect distillation of the modern pathology of fame. Salinger, a talented, hard-working and very popular writer, who died in 2010, is built up into a world-historical literary genius. Though a few negative reviews are mentioned — by Mary McCarthy and John Updike, most notably — they are drowned out by a chorus of extravagant praise. High school students and movie stars testify that “The Catcher in the Rye” changed their lives and changed the world.
But Salinger’s work is built up in this way so that his life can be torn open, and the fortress of privacy he erected around it torn down. A run-of-the-mill eccentric author of short stories might be left alone in the hills above the Connecticut River, but a genius of this caliber, whose books have been declared the common property of all humanity, is clearly asking to be exposed. And several of his stalkers — journalists and fans who staked out Salinger’s local post office or roosted at the bottom of his driveway — choose to interpret his supposed reclusiveness as a covert demand for attention.
This is an interesting and not altogether implausible idea, one of many that flicker into view during “Salinger,” only to be dissolved in the acid of sensationalism. Some of the film’s most intriguing information has to do with Salinger’s experiences in World War II, where he endured almost 300 days in combat and took part in the liberation of Dachau. He stayed in Europe after V-E Day to work with the Army Counterintelligence Corps and was briefly married to a German woman who may have been a Nazi. All the while, he was writing chapters of “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Mr. Salerno overplays his hand by making the war the key to nearly everything about Salinger, the primal wound that festers beneath the surface of his stories about young, rich, disaffected Americans. The idea that “Catcher” is a closet combat novel is provocative and not necessarily dismissible, but it needs to be argued with a sense of literary nuance, a sense of literature as something other than a message-delivery system, that is utterly missing here. Juxtaposing cover art from an early paperback edition of “Catcher” with photographs of death camp corpses does not do the trick.
The other main theme of “Salinger” is his personal life, in particular the relationships he had, platonic and not, with younger women and teenage girls. Interviews with two of them — Jean Miller, who met Salinger in the late 1940s in Florida and who is thought to have inspired his story “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor,” and Joyce Maynard, who lived with Salinger in the early ’70s and later wrote a book about the experience — are genuinely illuminating and disturbing. His behavior with them sheds a queasy light on his fiction, which often dwells on the precocity and half-innocence of characters perched on the brink of ruinous disillusionment.
“Salinger” offers up the bombshell revelation — anonymously sourced and blasted onto the screen with the kind of music that usually accompanies the destruction of a planet — that more novels are in store. Those will be acclaimed (or not) in due course, but in the meantime, Salinger fans will have to contend with this garish and confusing portrait. There are insights that can be plucked from it, but to do so requires strenuous resistance to the spirit of the project (both book and film), which is not just leering and gossipy, but aggressively anti-literary.
It is not entirely Mr. Salerno’s fault that he barely quotes any of Salinger’s words, apart from a few snippets of letters in the possession of their recipients. The film is dealing with an author notoriously protective of his copyright. (One of the few times he initiated contact with a journalist was to expose, and try to suppress, the circulation of pirated editions of early stories). But it is curious that a movie about such a notorious perfectionist should be so sloppy in matters of judgment and craft. The re-enactments — in which a dark-haired figure in a suit paces a darkened stage and pounds away at a typewriter, or else (dressed in a blue jumpsuit) lumbers through the forest with an ax — are embarrassingly literal. And the conversation about the place of “The Catcher in the Rye” in the imaginations of a few notorious killers would be a parody of hyperventilating tabloidism if it were not so obviously the real thing.
One of the experts dragged into that discussion notes that the word “phony” appears in “Catcher” more than 30 times. The last time I read the book, I thought Holden Caulfield overused that word, but, in this case, it is surely le mot juste.
Shane Salerno's energetic and at times over-dramatized documentary is a revealing look at the author of 'The Catcher in the Rye.'
5 September 2013
If further proof is needed of Oscar Wilde's contention that "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers," one need look no further than the life of author J.D. Salinger.
As delineated in Shane Salerno's energetic, informative and at times over-dramatized documentary, "Salinger," the celebrated writer spent the first part of his life lusting after literary success and the rest of it recoiling in horror at the consequences of his passion, refusing to publish anything and retreating to self-imposed, semi-reclusive exile in out-of-the-way Cornish, N.H.
But because he was J.D. Salinger, the author of "The Catcher in the Rye," which has sold some 60 million copies and been called "the great subversive anti-establishment book of all time," no one would leave him alone. Complete strangers would stalk him until, as one recounts in the film, Salinger would end up snapping, "I am not a teacher or a seer. I'm a fiction writer."
Though he never camped out in front of the great man's door, filmmaker Salerno is one of those obsessive fans. Best known for writing decidedly non-literary movies such as "Savages" and "Armageddon," Salerno has spent nine years and an estimated $2 million of his own money investigating Salinger's life.
The photographs and information Salerno unearthed over all that time are impressive and, despite a disingenuous publicity-seeking plea by the Weinstein Co. to keep things secret, it has all been made public by journalists who had access to the information well before the film was screened for critics.
Among Salerno's finds are a snapshot of Salinger working on "Catcher in the Rye" during a mesmerizing moment of World War II downtime, as well as brief home movie footage of him interacting with French civilians after the country's liberation.
We also learn about his brief postwar marriage to a German who may have worked for the Gestapo, and, in what is big news in literary circles, about the five books that Salinger, who died in 2010 at the age of 91, had written and arranged to be published starting in 2015.
It does zero harm to reveal these secrets because the lure of "Salinger" in no way depends on keeping them quiet. What compels us is the energetic — at times too energetic — pulse of Salerno's investigations, the sheer amount of work he's done and the almost 80 people he's convinced to open up on camera about their relationship to the man friends called Jerry.
Though neither of Salinger's children nor his widow sat for interviews (daughter Margaret is shown in old "Today" show clips), we do hear from people who were important in the writer's life. They help us understand how Salinger, in ways both sensible and strange, dealt with the enormous celebrity that came his way when "Catcher" was published in 1951.
The young writer had his first short story in print in 1940 when he was 21 but his great dream of being published by the New Yorker was derailed by World War II. He took part in the D-Day invasion, saw almost a year of fierce combat and was one of the first soldiers to enter a sub camp of Dachau, experiences that led to a post traumatic stress disorder breakdown and continued to have a powerful impact on him. "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nostrils," he once said. "No matter how long you live."
A perfectionist about his writing who could get melancholy about a misplaced comma, Salinger had yearned for success without realizing that it would mean intrusions into his personal life as well as ungovernable demands on time when he wanted to be writing. Seen in that light, the writer's move to New Hampshire and his decision to keep working but stop publishing make a certain kind of sense.
That's especially true when you realize that Salinger was never as much of a hermit as the media made him out to be. "He's not a recluse," Gore Vidal huffs. "He appears when he wants to." And that is exactly the case. Salinger also found time for the companionship, platonic and otherwise, of very young women.
The film has tracked down Jean Miller, whom Salinger first met on a Florida beach when she was 14 and inspired one of his most famous stories, and talks extensively with writer Joyce Maynard, who famously moved in with Salinger when she was 18 and he was 53.
All of this is compelling. But Salerno, as if he's unsure of what he's got, goes to great lengths to heighten the drama with crisp editing, a strong score, frequent sound effects and snappy visuals.
Less successful are the film's frequent dramatic re-creations of events in Salinger's life and, even worse, what it assumes is going on in his mind. Using the inside of downtown Los Angeles' Bradbury Building — one of the most instantly recognizable interior spaces in America — to substitute for a Manhattan publishing house is especially egregious, and one suspects that Salinger, an avowed enemy of phoniness, would hate the whole business.
More than that, as a compulsive protector of his own privacy, the man would of course be horrified by the tell-all nature of "Salinger." While it's impossible not to be drawn into the drama of the story, on a deeper level our fascination with the painful details of his life is disturbing. J.D. Salinger sacrificed a great deal for his privacy, and there's something inescapably sad about seeing it stripped away.