Salinger (2013) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking
Running Time: 129 min.

Cast: Joyce Maynard, John Guare, Tom Wolfe, Elizabeth Franks, Gore Vidal
Small role: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Norton, Martin Sheen, Judd Apatow, Danny DeVito, E.L. Doctorow, Robert Towne
Director: Shane Salerno

Review published September 26, 2013

Veteran screenwriter Shane Salerno's (AvP 2, Shaft) documentary takes a look at the life of the elusive and reclusive author, J.D. Salinger, widely regarded as one of the most important authors of the 20th Century, mostly stemming from the release of his 1951 literary masterpiece, "Catcher in the Rye", which became an instant cultural phenomenon. The doc tries to piece together just what made Salinger tick, from his stint in the military in the end days of World War II experiencing Dachau's aftermath, to the several failed relationships with women, who ranged from Nazi, to society page darling who left him, to a plethora of progressively younger girls he would get in contact with.

Salinger's massive popularity went against the grain of his need for privacy, and as teens and adults sought him out for more information on these writings that seemed to speak right to their very lives, he withdrew into seclusion in his own compound in rural New Hampshire, only coming out when he wanted to, and though he was rumored to have continued writing, he didn't publish another new work after 1965.  Nevertheless, the lack of public appearances only increased the aura surrounding the famous writer, and documentaries such as this one are in vogue, attempting to fill in all of the little details we couldn't get from Salinger's mouth itself.

Salinger is the result of a decade of research, interviews, and editing (some of these interviews were done while Salinger had still been alive) -- a real labor of love for its writer-director. Interviewees include some of Salinger's oldest friends (most who hadn't seen him in decades), a couple of his lovers, and writers, journalists, colleagues and celebrities who have been influenced by their exposure to "Catcher in the Rye". 

Though some of the research is quite revealing and thorough, and Salerno puts a good deal of emphasis on punching up the visuals into a nice, appealing package, this isn't without its share of weaker elements. As little is known about Salinger once he went into hiding, and his children were not available or interested in doing any themselves for this documentary (footage from other TV interviews were obtained), much of Salerno's film is akin to psychoanalysis of the author based, not on first-hand information, but on speculation given the facts of his life, such as how the war must have made him go a little crazy and uneasy in trying to reacclimatize to life at home, how his marriages and other dalliances molded his view of relationships, and how his writing reflects his own internal thoughts and feelings on the society around him.

While the celebrity cameos are a nice selling point for the trailer and advertisements, almost none of them contribute any insights you couldn't just glean from asking a random person on the street who has read "Catcher in the Rye" what they thought of the book at the time they had read it.  Some of the more prolonged discussions on Salinger's various romances, especially in his cold and withdrawn behavior in some of them, may not be of particular interest to those viewing Salinger because they want to see an exploration of an author and his work, though, to be fair, the film is called Salinger for a reason, even if it isn't one that is completely thorough, balanced or informative.  At times, the film treats Salinger more as a celebrity than a historical literary figure, which might irritate some viewers who won't genuinely care about what he would write in his personal letters to former lovers, or whose virginity he may have taken.  This can be tedious in a film that runs a little over two hours, especially because they could easily have been judiciously trimmed down and have lost little pertinent information.

Even the anecdotes that focus on Salinger's writing feel too slight for the amount of time expended upon them and the heavy-ish tone Salerno coats them with.  Much ado is made of Salinger's desire to be published in "The New Yorker", which turned him down from publication time and again, until he had a breakthrough and became a consistent contributor.  Other subjects include Salinger's displeasure in seeing his work altered by editors in any way, his disgust and rejection at seeing a Hollywood adaptation of his work, or his reaction to those who dared publish some of his early works he wanted out of the public domain.  These sorts of things wouldn't even merit a footnote in the biographies of other famous writers, but given that they were one of the very few arrows in the quiver in terms of what people know about Salinger's reaction to his body of work, Salerno has little choice but to utilize them and heighten the appearance of importance for all its worth.

The use of reenactments are a double-edged sword, as they do break up the monotony of the litany of talking heads that normally populate biographical documentaries, but they're also overused (repeated shots of a man and woman's feet walking along the beach grow tedious) and seem somewhat out of place in what purports to be a serious motion picture release rather than something made for A&E or the History Channel.  But most annoying is the recurring use of "reaction shots", from the few pictures we see of Salinger, in order to punctuate mood As someone recounts an anecdote in which Salinger was pleased about something, we see a pictures of him smiling, and if they discuss his dark side, we cut to a photograph of him looking grim and steely. 

Some of the stories seem much ado about nothing, the worst among them being a yarn spun by a "Catcher in the Rye" fan who recalls driving long hours in order to to see Salinger at his New Hampshire home in the late 1970s, and exchanges a few words with the reluctant author regarding the meaning of his writings to him.  Salinger's reaction might mean much to the fan, but elucidates little for the rest of us other than the fact that Salinger was probably right to try to get away from the public if they are that insatiable about making a pilgrimage in order to question him as if he were an omniscient messiah, hoping he might bestow wisdom and meaning to every aspect of their troubled lives.  There is also a sizable amount of time spent showcasing a photographer capturing Salinger going to pick up his mail -- photos that are replayed during additional anecdotes that have nothing to do with them. And many still photographs are shown a half-dozen times or more, some which neither depict Salinger nor anyone else who may have known him, stock photos injected merely to give us something to look at that ties in with the subject under current discussion. 

Other interesting subjects are brought up, such as the fact that several stalkers who would shoot a public figure cited reading "Catcher in the Rye" as a rationale, though these things aren't tied in well to the other material.  In fact, the biggest problem with Salerno's film as a whole is that it lacks a sufficient overall theme from which to springboard and tie in all of the other material.  Salinger has many interesting topics, but one never quite knows what to make of them before we hop to another subject entirely.  

Salinger readers who are interested in the man behind the words is the likely target of this documentary.  To those more interested in the writing, it also sheds light on the nature of some of the writing he had been working on since he ceased to publish any of his works.  Some of the nitpicks I've given above can be attributed to the fact that we're watching a documentary about a man who was nearly completely out of the public eye for decades. If we see reenactments or redundant photographs, it is because there wasn't a whole lot to work with.  Still, one gets the feeling that, if Salinger's stories were really a reflection of him, and "Catcher in the Rye" protagonist Holden Caulfield his alter ego, we would do better to just read his works in order to glean just who Salinger is, or had been, at the time he wrote the words.  The rest is random facts and a great deal of speculation based on general experiences of others.

While Salinger may be  informative and entertaining enough for some viewers to consider a worthwhile doc, the rambling length and lack of thematic backbone makes it one not really worth going far out of one's way for except for the tenaciously curious.  The final "revelation" regarding some of the works Salinger has slated for posthumous release is a curious way to end the film, and makes the production seem like an infomercial/hype machine release.  Do we really need to sit through two hours of hit-and-miss documentary to get to one-sentence synopses of the works, when these details, and many more, are easily found through the most casual of internet searches?

J.D. Salinger was a man of many mysteries, and proves just as elusive in his death as he had in his 91 years of life. Even after a decade of studying the author and his works, it would appear that Salerno doesn't really scratch much more than the surface.  While Salinger offers up much circumstantial evidence on just who this enigmatic figure is who influenced more than one generation of readers, even after two hours of this documentary trying to put him under a microscope, we still know very little about Jerome David Salinger other than the ripples that have affected others through his words, or lack thereof.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo