Unless you’re dealing with, say, a Tolstoy or Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway, making a writer the subject of a full-length documentary film risks boring the audience. After all, writing is a notoriously solitary occupation, and -- let’s face it -- most writers live a life of the mind, not of action.
If the subject happens to be J.D. Salinger, one of the two most famously American reclusive fiction writers (the other is Thomas Pynchon), the director’s work is doubly difficult. Unfortunately despite its two hour length and wealth of talking heads, "Salinger" doesn’t shed all that much light on Salinger’s life, and even less on his muse.
Shane Salerno spent nine years working on the film, and his one big "get," which comes at the end of the film, has generated a good deal of publicity. We learn that there was a safe in Salinger’s rural New Hampshire home that contained a few manuscripts which his estate trust plans to publish over the next several years.
While this is certainly big news in the literary world, I’m not sure it’s worth getting the treatment of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault, especially since the works as described sound like fictionalized memoirs. One thing we do learn about Salinger is that he really, really hated memoirs -- especially about himself.
That’s why he cut dead Joyce Maynard (one of the barely legal young women who became the object of his desire) and his own daughter. The cooperation of the former provides "Salinger" with some of its best insights. The obvious refusal to cooperate by the latter -- along with Salinger’s other child, Matt -- is unfortunate.
Along with Maynard, one other love interest, Jean Miller, contributes the other really salient interview. Salinger met Miller shortly after the war at a hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., when she was only 14. He wrote off Maynard, who moved in with him, when she was 18.
Do you detect a pattern here? Salinger was, to put a cap on it, a chicken hawk. So it’s doubly ironic that the one who got away, Oona O’Neill, the beautiful daughter of playwright Eugene, married Hollywood’s own lover of teenage girls, Charlie Chaplin. (To be fair, the two stayed happily married for the rest of Chaplin’s life and she bore him eight children.)
O’Neill and Salinger carried on a correspondence while he was fighting in Europe, and Salerno sees his combat duty as the key to the demons driving his subsequent fiction. The child of privilege, Salinger fought at D-Day and witnessed the liberation of one of the Nazi death camps.
While this experience could not have been anything but shattering to any of the G.I.s on hand, Salerno doesn’t provide any solid evidence that this marked the key element in Salinger’s creative life.
In the place of any really solid discussion about Salinger’s literary style, we get a lot of talking heads who are basically bold-faced fans, along with literary figures who didn’t know the guy but have read his books. True, there are a few contemporaries who knew him interviewed here, but they don’t provide enough critical heft to lift this documentary from the level of an "E! True Hollywood Story" or a VH1 "Behind the Music."
That’s especially ironic since we’re dealing here with a subject who went to extraordinary lengths to protect his privacy. Having one of the Salinger groupies re-enact his "gotcha" of the author in his White Mountains home, or a grizzled Newsweek photographer (remember Newsweek?) re-enacting his stalking of Salinger in front of the local post office borders on the tasteless.
Some cheesy re-enactments using a humpy stand-in who doesn’t look anything like the real-life Salinger; a weird recurring motif of the author sitting at a typewriter on a stage with an LED screen showing clips; and an overwrought score that gives the epic-film treatment to quiet scenes all add up to a sense of a filmmaker who seems desperate to imbue a fairly thin story line with the heft of Importance.
Salinger’s one published novel, "A Catcher in the Rye," put him solidly in the firmament of post-War writers. But put me in the camp of those who find it a very, very good work that falls short of a great one, and not anywhere near its obvious model, "Huckleberry Finn." If it made a sensation upon publication, it was hardly the world-historical event Salerno makes it out to be. Running a handful of blurbs from well-known publications with swelling music doesn’t make it so, either.
(It’s also inaccurate to say that its publishing history was without precedent. While "Catcher" certainly was a hit, Margaret Mitchell’s "Gone With the Wind" far surpassed it in sales.)
Salerno briefly mentions a few naysayers, most notably Mary McCarthy, who made the salient observation that Salinger’s works are too reflective of their author and are borderline narcissistic. Considering that this was a man who, for most of his adult life, tried as much as possible to shut himself off from the world and other people, that’s a point that Salerno would have done well to pursue further.
The portrait of Salinger we do get is of a loner who, well into the ’70s, was dancing to Lawrence Welk; a man whose main dish consisted of frozen peas run under a warm faucet; a father and husband who built a concrete bunker so he could isolate himself for days at a time.
This is not, in the end, a likable or even very interesting guy. No matter how much Salerno tries to interest us in Salinger, there’s not much you can do when your subject is so aggressive about being as uninteresting and as private as possible in a world obsessed by celebrities.