News Column

'Salinger': Like its subject, a mixed bag

September 20, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 20--'It's partly true, too, but it isn't all true," Holden Caulfield muses in The Catcher in the Rye. "People always think something's all true."

Salinger, the documentary about the man who unleashed that Caulfield kid on the world, is, to be sure, partly true. In the wake of months (years?) of hype, hoopla, and revelations promised -- and publicized with the subtlety of a carnival barker -- Shane Salerno's film is finally here. It is by turns illuminating, exasperating, sloppy, redundant, a head-spinner, and a headache.

J.D. Salinger, the famous recluse ("If I were a piano player, I'd play it in the goddamn closet," Caulfield sneers), is the author, of course, of Catcher, a slim 1951 fiction starring a prep-school dropout who rails against the "phonies" and "morons" of the world. The coming-of-age odyssey, translated into almost every language on the planet, has sold 60 million copies and continues to move by the hundreds of thousands every year. It is considered one of the great novels of the 20th century, and Salinger one of its greatest writers -- an opinion, Salerno's film reveals, that the author, even in his early days, when he was still being rejected by the New Yorker, shared. His friend, A.E. Hotchner, remembers Salinger's declaration in a Greenwich Village bar that there had been no greater fiction writer "from Melville to me."

And from 1965, when his last published story appeared, until his death in 2010, two big questions have dogged Salinger devotees: Was he writing? And if so, what? Salinger, in its closing minutes, answers those FAQs in a triumphal burst of text and swelling music. (No spoilers here, because the news has already been all over the place: five new publications expected between 2015 and 2020, including a new Holden Caulfield tale, a World War II love story, a Seymour Glass story, an account of Salinger's work as a counterintelligence officer in the war, and a manual about Vedanta Hinduism, which Salinger practiced, religiously.)

The portrait that emerges from Salinger, supported by archival photographs and film footage, by the testimony of intimates and friends, by a fan who had a disillusioning brush with his hero on the dirt road leading up to his Cornish, N.H., home, is of a man who was controlling, distant, kind of pervy, and very private. And while Jean Miller, whom Salinger befriended at a Daytona Beach resort when he was 30, a returning vet, and she was 14, a girl with a copy of Wuthering Heights in her beach bag, speaks of him with fondness, his behavior toward her, as their relationship took its turns, was shockingly cruel.

Joyce Maynard, who was an 18-year-old college freshman when Salinger, 53, tracked her down and compelled her to live with him, also talks on camera. Their liaison lasted 10 months. Maynard is still getting over it. (And, some have argued, still capitalizing on it: In 1999, she auctioned off her personal letters from Salinger, and just this week, the New York Times published a Maynard essay about Salinger's serial exploitation of young women.)

Central to the film are Salinger's experiences in World War II. He was on Utah Beach on D-Day, and liberated the death camps at Dachau 299 days later. In between: combat, carnage, devastation, death. Salinger makes the case that its subject suffered post-traumatic stress disorder before the condition had a name, and that it shaped his writing, and worldview, forever. Not hard to argue with that.

But here are some things to argue with: The film is dotted with gratuitous talking-head interviews from celebs who have no more connection to Salinger than you or me: John Cusack, Edward Norton, Martin Sheen, mulling the meaning of Holden Caulfield and his epic, angry high jinks. Only Philip Seymour Hoffman, relating his loss of anonymity to how Salinger, suddenly a celebrity, must have felt, connects in any kind of tangible way.

But the film's most egregious conceit has to be its reenactments: An actor playing Salinger, pacing an empty stage (images projected on a rear screen), tapping away at a typewriter, ringed by sheaves of abandoned pages, is bad enough. But then we see this "Salinger" fellow as he delivers his Catcher in the Rye manuscript to editor Robert Giroux at the Manhattan imprint of Harcourt, Brace & Co.

The scene is staged, however, at the Bradbury Building in downtown L.A., an edifice whose wrought-iron balconies, cage elevators, and Escher-like stairwells are identifiable from films from Blade Runner to The Artist. Worse than the architectural inaccuracy, though, is the fact that it's just historically wrong: Salinger's agent sent the manuscript over to Giroux by messenger. The author and the editor had met at his offices, but a year before.

Maybe that's nitpicking, but it speaks to the recklessness of Salerno's approach. The Weinstein Co.'s production notes cite the "hundreds" of people the filmmaker interviewed over the years, but many of the doc's on-camera interviews seem tangential, almost trivial.

And while the movie establishes the cultural impact of The Catcher in the Rye (and its troubling place in history as "inspiration" for the men who took guns to John Lennon and Ronald Reagan), it doesn't do much to investigate, or celebrate, the genius of Salinger's prose.

Salinger is fascinating because Salinger was fascinating. But the film is frustrating, maddeningly so, because it is bent on trumpeting its own importance over that of its subject.

To quote that damn Caulfield again: "People always clap for the wrong things."

Salinger (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK){ (out of four stars)

Directed by Shane Salerno.

With Jean Miller, Joyce Maynard, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, and others.

Distributed by the Weinstein Co.

Running time: 2 hours, 9 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, violence, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.

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