[13 September 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
So, J.D. Salinger liked little girls. No, not in a sexual way (that came after they reached a legitimate legal age). He was a bit of a prick to friends and family. He saw horrors during his stint in World War II (he participated in D-Day, as well as the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Dachau) and couldn’t fathom how anyone could take his tome, the classic high school reading rite of passage A Catcher in the Rye and turn it into a mandate for murder. Long before John Hinkley and Mark David Chapman used Holden Caulfield and his hatred for “phonies” as an excuse to gun down a President and a rock icon, respectively, Salinger had slinked off to exile, keeping himself out of a limelight he never wanted nor needed.
Now director/carnival barker Shane Salerno has pitched a two-hour plus infomercial fit all in the name of bringing the reclusive author back to his public. Last time anyone checked, few outside their fanatical were asking for such a slick cross-media tie-in. It’s the kind of hopeless hyperbole that Salinger himself would rally against. But with a book to sell and a secret to keep (spoiler alert - there will be more works from the author released in the next few years), Salerno rounds up some unusual suspects to act as shills. The resulting documentary, entitled Salinger, does a decent job of filling in the blanks of the writer’s already examined life. What it doesn’t do is answer the most important question surrounding the scribe’s life. Why?
Why did Salinger focus his attentions on impressionable, naive young women? Why did he write so little before escaping ‘underground?’ Why did he continue to write even though he had no intention of publishing again, at least during his lifetime? These and other intriguing questions are left more or less unanswered as Salerno gathers a group of well wishers and eye witnesses to chew the fat and spill the beans…except, all anyone really does is muddy the picture. Celebrity shouts outs from the likes of John Cusack, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, and Martin Sheen add name value and recognition while fellow authors Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, and E.L. Doctrow try and grapple with his complex public legacy. All paint a very incomplete portrait.
It all adds up to an extended ruse, an advertisement for a massive volume (720 pages) which probably contains more meat than this otherwise ordinary film. Granted, the information Salerno has dug up is interesting, just like any story about any public figure’s heretofore unknown latter days. But there’s a lot of Albert Goldman here as well, the posthumous desire to unleash the unsubstantiated and besmirch the otherwise unadorned with reams of tabloid level allegations. No one assumed Salinger was a saint, but as bits of anecdotal evidence fly by without much commentary or critique, the stage is set for the ultimate conclusion - this guy was a real asshole. In fact, Salinger goes out of its way to highlight this personality predisposition as if it somehow mirrors some facet of its famous subject’s career.
As a student of Salinger, most of this material is rote. Or moot. If you love Catcher, or Franny and Zooey, you could care less about how their creator came to hate them. Hell, there are probably songs in his repertoire that Paul McCartney is apprehensive about singing night after night as well. In fact, the entire mythologizing of the Salinger story turns films like this into tacky, ineffectual duds. Nothing Salerno uncovers, not the doubts or self-loathing, can match the stories we’ve made up in our heads, and instead of focusing on where the real narrative would lie - with those people who have made it their life’s work to uncover the truth about him - the filmmaker keeps pushing that Amazon rank agenda.
That being said, there is still something inherently entertaining here, like cuddling up with a favorite episode of VH1’s Behind the Music for the umpteenth time. The footage of fans acting like Salinger is Bigfoot during the 1970s is hilarious, as are the various glimpses of the author throughout his episodic aging process. The archival material is also interesting since it allows Salinger the one thing this film doesn’t - that is, a chance to speak for himself. Sure, it’s all prepared and practiced, but wouldn’t you be after the 300th inquiry about the autobiographical nature of your work?
What Salinger should have been is a discussion of such dogged, uncontrollable fame. When Catcher took off, leading an entire generation to praise and worship the man who made it, this new religion was rejected by its so-called God. Salinger wanted nothing to do with such sacrilege, so he tried to remove himself from it. In turn, he merely added fuel to his literary martyrdom. In fact, learning that there will be more works published in the near future diminishes the reasons we all cared in the first place. It’s the same with something like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, except in this case, the author made his escape much more permanent, and before he became a TV talking point. With two novels and some short stories, the folklore was firm. Now…who knows?
For Salenro, it’s all grist for the sell, sell, sell mill. He’s out to be the it, the end all, be all of Salinger experts. Years from now, when all this new work is filtered through the author’s legacy and legitimized (or not so) by those thinkers in their applicable ivory towers, this director will sit back and drink in the fluid of his own self-created import. He will welcome the inquiries…unless, he turns into a Salinger like stranger in his own literary land. Again, there is nothing wrong with turning a years in the making, solicited in secret labor of love into the last word on why a famous face would turn their back on the ballyhoo and simply want to get on with their life.
Perhaps, after answer the 1000th question about what he learned about Salinger over the course of his investigation into the man, Salerno will finally get it. When you change the social dynamic and discussion, the people want a reason why you interrupted them. J. D. Salinger and his elegant garnet and gold paperback offered such an interlude…and he never wanted to own up to his redirection of the cultural conversation. Instead of understanding it, Shane Salerno just wants to profit from it. Sounds like the rationale for Salinger’s eventual exit after all.