J.D. Salinger would have hated Shane Salerno’s documentary about the famously reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye.
It’s frequently lurid, bombastic and sensationalistic. In other words, it’s often exemplary of the type of cultural obsession with celebrity that made Salinger go looking for seclusion in the woods of Cornish, N.H., where he died in 2010 at the age of 91.
But the film is also an exhaustively researched, fascinating portrait that is essential viewing for those who know Salinger only as some pure-hearted champion of innocence over “phoniness.”
Salerno’s résumé is a good indication of what level of subtlety to expect. He co-wrote the screenplays for the Michael Bay movie Armageddon and Oliver Stone’s Savages, both of which are about as far from Salinger’s fictional Glass family as one could imagine. It’s no wonder Salerno’s first documentary features a thundering score and a predilection for bombshells.
But Salerno also spent 10 years researching the film, interviewing more than 100 people. When he drops the stylistic overkill and lets these people talk about Salinger, what emerges is a riveting picture of a contradictory, deeply selfish, troubled man.
The film opens with a Newsweek photographer recounting the story of snapping Salinger’s picture as he was picking up his mail years ago. From there, it traces Salinger’s privileged upbringing in Manhattan, his expulsion from several prep schools and his early desire to be published in The New Yorker.
The film’s main thrust, however, is that “the Second World War made Salinger.” He spent an astonishing 299 days in combat, from storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day with chapters of Catcher tucked under his uniform, through to V-E Day and the liberation of Dachau. We see the only picture of Salinger working on Catcher, snapped by a war buddy, and “never before seen” footage of him receiving flowers from Parisian women.
The idea that Catcher should be read as a “disguised war novel” is intriguing, but it needs to be argued with more nuance. And scenes that show a Salinger stand-in typing away onstage as horrific war scenes play out on screen behind him is a crude (and yes, phony) way of depicting the psychology of his writing process. But otherwise Salerno makes a convincing case as to just how much the war affected Salinger and his fiction.
The second focal point of the film is Salinger’s relationship with young women, which often had a Humbert Humbert creepiness. When he was 30, he met 14-year-old Jean Miller, the inspiration for his short story For Esmé – With Love and Squalor on a beach in Florida. He courted her with love letters until she turned 18, at which point he took her virginity and never spoke to her again.
Then there is author Joyce Maynard, who lived with Salinger when she was 18 and he was 53. Interviews with both women cast his fiction in a new light, helping viewers see the dark side of its frequent obsession with youthful innocence.
One wishes that Salerno paid more attention to Salinger’s work itself, and what it is about his prose that made him one of the 20th century’s best writers. Of course, given how protective Salinger was of his copyright, such efforts were surely limited.
That said, one segment of the film that suggests Salinger knew Catcher would be an incitement to violence is truly inexcusable, regardless of what Mark David Chapman and other deranged minds have done in the book’s name.
The film ends with the thundering announcement, supposedly confirmed by two unnamed sources, that there are several completed Salinger works, including a complete history of the Glass family and a novel based on his experience as a Second World War intelligence officer, that will begin to be published in 2015.
Critics have not been kind to Salinger. One said that if the author were alive to see it, “he’d come after Salerno with a hatchet.” Others have called it “leering and gossipy,” “garish,” “self-aggrandizing,” and “anti-literary.” But others have called it “thoroughly engrossing” and “fascinating.”
What’s troubling is the suggestion, both explicit and implicit, that much of the critical animus toward the movie is motivated by the idea that because Salinger would have hated it, audiences should as well; that a violation of the man’s cherished privacy somehow is tantamount to an aesthetic violation. That’s a fallacy of critical thinking.
Most disturbing, however, is that a handful of critics make clear they are on Salinger’s side regardless of what evidence might be marshalled against his sainthood.
For example, New York magazine’s David Edelstein tries to minimize Salinger’s repellant treatment of Jean Miller by writing that “he liked pretty young girls. Stop the presses,” and adds that years after she and Salinger first met, “(when she was legal), she initiated sex, after which he broke it off.” Anyone who would suggest that a young woman in that situation has even an iota of sexual autonomy should be ashamed of himself. But hero worship is blinding.
Treating Salinger as nothing more than tabloid fodder for a True Hollywood Story-style documentary, which this film often flirts with, would be unfair and a disservice to the man. But that shouldn’t stand in the way of any attempts to understand who he truly was.
It is just as unfair and irresponsible to reflexively uphold the myth of Salinger as a saint of authenticity and innocence who wanted nothing more than the privacy to pursue the purity of his artistic vision.