'Salinger' chases a recluse out of the shadows

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

The documentary by Shane Salerno treats the author's life in exposé fashion.

Paul Fitzgerald/The Story Factory/AP
An undated image shows J.D. Salinger working on ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ during World War II.
Amanda Schwab/Starpix/AP
This image shows director-producer Shane Salerno at the New York premiere of 'Salinger,' in New York.

By turns fascinating and infuriating, the documentary “Salinger” arrives with a public-relations fanfare not unlike Geraldo Rivera’s opening of Al Capone’s vault. The promotional campaign cautions “Uncover the Mystery but Don’t Spoil the Secrets.” The “mystery” here is the life of J.D. Salinger; one of the “secrets,” already trumpeted in advance in the press, is the tantalizing possibility that Salinger, who died in 2010 at age 91, instructed his estate to publish five additional books beginning in 2015.

Shane Salerno, who wrote and directed the film, and who also produced a just-published companion book, an oral history also titled “Salinger,” is the screenwriter of “Savages” and has also written several upcoming sequels to “Avatar.” He’s a showman who treats Salinger’s life in exposé fashion, heavy on the psychobiography. Much of what is revealed in this film has been reported in the past, though not in such detail. We hear about Salinger’s posh New York upbringing – his Jewish father, who disapproved of his son’s literary ambitions, was in the cheese business; his Roman Catholic mother was much more obliging. Tossed out of a series of prep and military schools, wanting to make his mark as an actor before discovering writing, he enlisted in the Army and landed on Normandy Beach during the Allied invasion. Likely shellshocked, working in counterintelligence directly after the war, he encountered the Nazi death camps and had a nervous breakdown. He brought back to America a German bride who, it turns out, may have been a Gestapo spy. (The marriage was dissolved almost immediately.)

Salinger had been selling stories to established magazines like Esquire, but his ambition, his obsession, was to crack The New Yorker, something he finally accomplished. When “The Catcher in the Rye,” which Salinger had been working on even in wartime, was published in 1951, it turned him into his generation’s instant guru. Its success also drove him from the New York literary scene, which he hated anyway, into reclusion in the wilds of New Hampshire, where he resided until his death. His last published story, coming after the books “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” was in 1965.
Salerno pays lip service to Salinger’s literary accomplishment, with brief talking-head segments featuring everyone from Gore Vidal and Tom Wolfe to John Guare and Robert Towne, but what really interests him is the down-and-dirty stuff. So we hear from a parade of women, often decades younger than Salinger, with whom he consorted. (Joyce Maynard, who once wrote a tell-all book about her life with Salinger, is the most prominently featured.) Salerno pushes the idea that Salinger’s early, failed love affair with the teenage Oona O’Neill, who dumped him for Charlie Chaplin no less, was a lifelong regret.

He also pushes, more plausibly, the contention that much of Salinger’s emotional difficulties were a species of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered in the wake of World War II. But there is much overreaching in this film. A talking-head voice-over tells us in doomy tones how the birth of Salinger’s daughter, Margaret (who, unlike his son, Matthew, is interviewed in the film), disrupted his ordered life. What exactly is unique about this disruption?

The film has a quote from Salinger from 1980 saying that “writing Holden was a mistake.” Some mistake: The book has sold 60 million copies and continues to sell 250,000 a year. According to this film, Salinger stipulated in his will that “The Catcher in the Rye” never be made into a movie. (Billy Wilder and Elia Kazan, among others, tried to convince him otherwise.) So instead of a movie of “The Catcher in the Rye” we have “Salinger,” a documentary that turns the author into a crypto Holden Caulfield. Maybe Salinger was right all those years in shunning the limelight. Psychobiography isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for disturbing war images, thematic elements, and smoking.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'Salinger' chases a recluse out of the shadows
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today