By Linc Leifeste | September 19, 2013
Director: Shane Salerno
Featuring: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Martin Sheen, Tom Wolfe, Judd Apatow, Joyce Maynard
Coming in to director Shane Salerno’s documentary Salinger, I knew next to nothing about the author’s personal life other than that he was legendary for being a long-time recluse. I’d read, loved and reread The Catcher in the Rye but never felt the need to delve into the author’s personal life. That said, I’ll admit to being mildly intrigued by the kind of marketing hype that produces claims of the film being the first to successfully break through the author’s meticulously built-up walls. I came away from the film knowing a lot more about Salinger’s life but also mightily relieved that the filmmaker failed in his effort to break through the author’s self-seclusion and mightily annoyed by his grandiose, self-important style of delivery.
The viewer gets a strong sense of the worst qualities of Salinger early on as photographer Michael McDermott reenacts and narrates his famous 1979 photo of Salinger outside of a Vermont post office. By this time the author had been a recluse for many years and McDermott’s photo was the first of Salinger in eighteen years. But still, to place such drama on a hired gun sitting outside a post office where Salinger is reputed to pick up his mail and then snapping a picture from his car strikes me as inane. The photo revealed nothing about the author other than that he was still living, had aged and still checked his mail. What a freaking accomplishment!
From there, the film morphs into more successful, traditional documentary fare and shares the early years of Salinger’s life. In a nutshell, he had a comfortable upbringing with a Jewish father who didn’t approve of his artistic ambitions, was in and out of prep schools before settling into a military academy, became a respected and published writer of short stories but was repeatedly rejected by The New Yorker until he finally wasn’t. At which point, just prior to its publication, Pearl Harbor happened and his story was cut from the magazine. He enlisted and saw his first action on Normandy Beach on D-Day and saw nearly 300 straight days of action afterwards and was there for the liberation of Paris. He worked in counterintelligence and was exposed to the still fresh horrors of the concentration camps and had a nervous breakdown. Eventually he returned to service and was involved in the de-Nazification programs in Germany but interestingly wound up marrying a German woman who was probably a former Nazi, against regulations, and brought her back to home to his Jewish family in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the marriage was soon annulled.
It’s fascinating to contemplate the impact Salinger’s wartime experiences had on him, how they might have shaped his views on human nature and influenced his creation of characters such as Holden Caulfield. But it seems Salinger is more interested in overreaching interpretations of the author, asserting implausibly that Caulfield is Salinger, which just made me all the more sympathetic towards Salinger’s decision to flee the Salernos of his day who were attempting to understand, define and explain him.
Soon, Salinger was being published with regularity by The New Yorker and his literary star was on the rise. Catcher in the Rye, which was published in 1951, was a work that Salinger had been crafting for years, even during his wartime service, and cemented his literary stardom. But it was that stardom, more than he could stand, that drove him from New York to rural Vermont. He published a couple more books but by 1965 had ceased publishing altogether, although he still wrote, and became an ever more reclusive and controversial subject. Salinger mistakenly spends a lot of time and energy trying unsuccessfully to provide some semblance of what Salinger’s last fifty plus years in seclusion were like while spending almost no time talking about the author’s work, his writing style, his original voice, his impact on the larger literary world. What we wind up suffering through is a second half long on interviews with an obsessed fan who details a supposed interaction with the author outside his home and a photographer who hid in the woods to snap a few photographs of Salinger walking his dog. This is not the stuff of legend. It just makes you glad that Salinger was so successful in his efforts to curtail the attempts of the outside world to document his life.
My advice? If you’re someone who’s not already familiar with Salinger’s life and have an interest, find a theater located near a coffee shop and take a copy of your favorite Salinger work along with you. Watch the first hour or so of the documentary to get a sense of Salinger’s formative years, his moving wartime service experiences and his early writing endeavors and then relocate to the coffee shop and spend an hour actually reading some Salinger. Your life will be better for it.
UPDATE: For the sake of full disclosure, the Weinstein Company sent out an update that never before seen footage was added to their film Salinger after the press screening I attended. So the final product might have footage that wasn’t included in the screening I attended.