20 November 2013

Filmbook: "Salinger" (2013)

Even though it's not an adaptation I decided to watch about "Salinger" (and blog about it, frankly) because it caused a bit of a stir when it premiered at Sundance and its buyers, the Weinstein brothers, with whom I am obsessed, seemed to indicate it would be one of their major Oscar projects for this fall. That's pretty rare for a documentary, and for an author biopic.

From knowing almost nothing about Salinger's early life, I learned a good deal from this documentary, and what I learned surprised me. From a fairly cushy background, Salinger was a mediocre student with a love for writing and dating debutantes (the movie lingers on this point, somewhat creepily, but interviews with his old flames are entertaining). Being drafted in 1942 changed all that: Salinger worked on THE CATCHER IN THE RYE while he was marching through Europe and was able to wrangle a meeting with Hemingway while there, but likely suffered from what today we would call PTSD. Coming back to New York, his fervor to be published (particularly in that great white whale the New Yorker) increased, but his tolerance for appearing in the high society whose company he once enjoyed plummeted. The publishing of CATCHER gave him the literary reputation he craved and the funds to sock his family away in New Hampshire (a decision it seems he did not run by Mrs Salinger, as she later filed for divorce). From there he got weirder and more reclusive, though to the townspeople he was just a nice old man who deserved to be left alone.

The final nails in that coffin, according to this documentary, were the Reagan assassination attempt and the Lennon assassination, both of which were associated with CATCHER through the later testimony of the killers. Filmmaker Shane Salerno (a sort of boy wonder who made his first documentary in high school and cowrote "Armageddon" at 24) suggests that for a former soldier, it was too painful for Salinger to be closely associated with these violent deaths through his work, and he decided to maintain a media silence.

As a filmed work, "Salinger" isn't a very impressive piece -- more like a TV documentary than something to be viewed on the big screen. (And as I was viewing it on my small-TV-sized laptop screen, I still couldn't put that out of my head.) As this Wire piece describes, many scenes consist of still photographs or voiceovers layered with scenes of a tall dark-haired man at a desk (a Salinger stand-in figure). They might as well have input fake nature-y backgrounds a la Kanye West's "Bound 2." But I can forgive a certain amount of filmed hackery and filler pieces, like testimony from famous actors on how great CATCHER IN THE RYE is.

The film's approach to Salinger's later life is what really bothered me about this documentary. It opens with POV shots from the perspective of a fan (I would say a stalkery fan) who has decided to find Salinger at his home in New Hampshire, and continues to interweave firsthand accounts of approaching Salinger during his final years. There are photographs and videos of a very old J.D. Salinger, strikingly similar to the body double used in the man-at-typewriter scenes, but that serve really no purpose in advancing the story of his life. (Interviews with Joyce Maynard, who was invited to Salinger's house and became his lover, are problematic too, but for other reasons.) I get it, you were moved by his work (as many were) and you were curious (as I am). That doesn't give you the right to have a conversation with Salinger, whether he lives in Cornish, New Hampshire or in the Time Warner Center in New York City, whether you named all your children after members of the Glass family (please don't) or have read CATCHER till your copy disintegrated.

It can be fun and informative for documentarians to show the lengths they are prepared to go to in order to get their subjects' side of the story. I'm thinking in particular of the great Kirby Dick doc "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," about the shadowy (sometimes literally) members of the MPAA whose movie ratings can control how and whether major motion pictures get distribution, but a fair number of filmmakers have incorporated their unsuccessful interviews into their work. But in "Salinger" it feels invasive and largely unnecessary to arrive at the film's great conclusion, which is (spoiler alert) that Salinger continued to write long into his seclusion and intends some of those works to be published in the next few years. To pull off that big reveal, you don't have to badger an old man. Go find his publisher or agent to make an on-camera denial, or distort your original source's voice and face ("60 Minutes" style) and have him relate it. I'm surprised to find that I feel as strongly about this authorial right to privacy as Hollywood stars feel about the paparazzi: In the end, no matter how fundamental his work to American literature, Salinger exercised the right not to publish for the latter half of his life. And that choice was his. It feels greasy and sickening to assert otherwise.

Filmbook verdict: Sure, watch it on Netflix if you're interested in the author, but go in skeptical. (This review heavily shaded by my own

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