Film Review – Salinger
One of the most enigmatic figures of the 20th century was unquestionably J. D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. Like many Americans, I became enamored with him after reading that book in school and soaking in its anti-establishment message. Almost as engrossing as the novel itself is the story of its author, who, after writing one of the quintessential novels of the last century, essentially vanished, becoming a recluse from the world…or so it seemed. The new documentary Salinger, by Shane Salerno, attempts to peak behind the curtain and look at the life of a literary legend and man who has almost become a cult leader to a legion of fans.
It is hard not to feel a bit dirty in going to see the film; after all, it is the story of a man who spent the better part of his life never letting it be told. It feels a bit like going ahead and doing something after being explicitly told by your parents not to. Still, there is a mystery to J. D. Salinger that is irresistible, as if he wasn’t even a human, but rather some sort of alien creature. At a runtime of two hours, the documentary feels like it should be a fairly in-depth, and yet it seems to only scratch the surface of who Salinger was. The early years of his life are explored in immense detail, tackling him growing up in a world of privilege, his obsession with being published by The New Yorker, his experiences on D-Day, seeing the Holocaust first hand—things that deeply shaped him as an individual and a writer. However, one of the greatest challenges and one the film’s greatest flaws is the discussion of Salinger’s later years. Certainly not a lot was known from his time as a recluse, but the film does paint the picture of a man who was much more savvy and manipulative than most realized—who, on one hand, cherished his privacy, but on the other hand used people’s obsession with his reclusiveness to achieve the publicity/notoriety he wanted. His time in seclusion helped establish him as a cult figure, and while information about this time just might not be available, it is one of many areas that dare you to explore it more, beyond what this film provides.
The film paints J. D. Salinger as a challenging man, very narcissistic and manipulative, who would ignore his family and drop friends at a moment’s notice, all in the pursuit of perfection in his craft. Even still, it is hard not to be somewhat empathetic towards him. As the lines blurred between his work as fiction and what was taken from his real life, the obsession from fans that his fame brought was almost without parallel—consider how he was constantly stalked by fans in the mid-20th century, far before the internet was a catalyst for that. Certainly there was an element of paranoia in his fear of people learning information about him, but what Salinger somewhat intentionally and somewhat inadvertently conveys is that he was, in fact, pretty much right. People were apt to capitalize on their associations with him.
Stylistically, Salinger is a bit challenging. It is structured between two narrative paths, one from J. D. Salinger’s early life and one from his later reclusive life, alternating between them to show how those early years led to his later life. That is completely fine, but there are some weird decisions to get there, such as using brief reenactments and frequent cuts to a “Salinger”-like figure sitting on a stage, things that feel unnecessary and stretch out the runtime. The story exists in an unfortunate paradox: the people interviewed feel like they are divided between sycophants and those who harbor some resentment toward Salinger. Unfortunately, to truly remain in his inner circle, one knew it meant never discussing him. And yet, those are the people you would most like to see interviewed—his son, his sister, his last wife. Regardless of their position on J. D. Salinger, the film does create a pretty in-depth portrait of a man who was incredible gifted, experienced many of the troubles of society, reached a level of success few will ever know, and truly realized the pain that fame brings. It must also be noted that the archival photos and footage the film contains are quite remarkable.
Still, there are a fair number of topics that were either left on the cutting room floor or not addressed at all. The issue of The Catcher in the Rye being censored in schools and libraries isn’t touched upon; the fall-out of the book’s role in the Lennon assassination (as well as the attempted Reagan assassination) is only lightly touched upon. Perhaps we will never know J. D. Salinger’s feelings on the subject, but the impact on society of these types of events probably could fill an entire film itself, so to not really address it at all seems a bit perplexing (and maybe this will ultimately be remedied on the DVD release). On the flip side, there is a 5-10 minute segment which details the previously unreleased works from Salinger that are coming out now after his death, a subject which certainly deserves time, but feels a bit awkward, as the film gives just a series of slides with titles/brief synopses…not exactly the most engaging way to convey that information.
It is hard not to have some appreciation for someone who sacrificed everything he had (family, children, friends) for his pursuit of perfection in his writing. Certainly he was a narcissist, a manipulator, and a poor husband/father, but J. D. Salinger’s gift as a writer is without question, and his pure dedication to that seems almost monk-like. While he may be dead, the last chapter of his life has not yet been written, as his remaining written works (from during his seclusion) are going to be released from 2015-2020. With anticipation and fear, I await their arrival, because, much like this documentary, it might be better to let our fantasy about him live on rather than see the man behind the curtain. And yet, there is still the possibility the releases will bring greatness, something the world has been waiting 50 years to see. It might just be the greatest second act ever.