Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -2; L -1; S/N -4. Running time: 2 hours
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
1 Corinthians 13:1
Shane Salerno’s two-hour documentary on the life of the literary world’s answer to the reclusive Howard Hughes reminds me of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Both Welles’ fictional life of William Randolph Hearst and Salerno’s documentary on Salinger set out to unravel the mystery of powerful men—but both end with the admission that the subject is an enigma. Salerno’s at least ends with a surprising promise: The man who published just a few stories after Catcher in the Rye never stopped writing but has a cache of stories that will become available beginning in 2015.
Although the book is probably the most widely read coming-of-age novel ever written, the filmmaker apparently thought it would require some headline stars to catch the attention of twenty-something viewers, so Edward Norton, Danny DeVito, John Cusack, Martin Sheen, Judd Apatow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman are brought in from time to time to comment upon the writer and his book. More pertinent are the interviews with such writers as Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow and others. Even better are those with people who actually knew the man, such as long-time friend A.E. Hotchner, whom Salinger dropped after a supposed “betrayal;” Jean Miller, who met the author in Florida in the late 40s when she was a teenager and possibly inspired one of his characters; and Joyce Maynard who lived with him for a long period until she could stand his neglect no longer (she wrote a book about the experience).
The filmmaker suggests that the 299 days Salinger was in constant combat in World War II, from D-Day to the liberation of a concentration camp and beyond, is reflected in his famous novel and is part of the reason for his withdrawal after the novel made him famous. Also posited is the idea that his reclusiveness was a ploy that drew all the more attention because he was almost impossible to reach. I wish Salerno had spent as much time with the authors he interviewed as he did with the photojournalist who spent such a huge amount of time securing one grainy photograph of Salinger emerging from the post office of Cornish, N.H. The writers could have enlightened us far more about the author’s works than the one measly photograph does. There are numerous re-enactments that would have been best left out, and the filmmaker should have cut way back on the overly dramatic and ponderous music that really belongs in a Hollywood thriller.
But with all the little known facts that the film reveals, Salinger seems to be certainly one who deserves the attention of this “warts and all” portrait, one showing that a man might be both a good writer and a failed human being. If attaching the first verse of Paul’s great passage on agape love seems judgmental, then so be it. As pictured in the film, virtually all of Salinger’s relationships were maintained only for his own needs, and when other needs arose, he broke off the relationship.
At least one critic suggested that the film should have been a miniseries so as to include not only the anecdotes garnered from the 150 persons interviewed, but also offer us more analysis of the works themselves, explaining why they are considered so great. As it is, we have what amounts to a tabloid cover story (think The National Enquirer) when what we need is the kind of story found in The New York Times Magazine or better, the magazine that Salinger failed so many times to break into early in his career, The New Yorker. As with the reporter seeking answers at the end of Citizen Kane, the object of attention remains a mystery and we are left wondering, “Why would a man spend virtually all of his time writing and yet not want it published in his own lifetime?”
The following was not in the movie, but was found when I Googled “Holden Caulfield” and found the article “10 Things Holden Caulfield Hates About Everyone.” I had forgotten this paragraph, which makes me want to have another go at the novel.
“I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down. I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples.”