Salinger, the ten-years-in-the-making documentary by Shane Salerno, is a surprisingly moving and thorough look at the life of one of American’s most beloved iconic writers. It is a must-see film for anyone who appreciates the child birthing-like nature of writing and its nearly supernatural ability to give voice to our shared humanity. Surprisingly because there was a veneer of sensationalism/celebrity-chasing in the marketing of the film as a “never before seen” and uncomfortably probing wide-angle-lens-like expose on a man who purposely shunned the spotlight. The Catcher In The Rye captured the hearts and minds of generations; the very relatable angst of Holden Caulfield and his condemnation of all things fake made this seminal work timeless and dearly loved and not just one of those other classics you were forced to read in English class but never really enjoyed. Salerno’s documentary certainly covers a lot of ground—as for the attention-grabbing ploys, we can chalk those up to misguided publicity efforts because the strength of the film is certainly not in unearthing unseen footage but in painting a holistic portrait of the enigmatic Salinger.
Salinger makes a lot of how World War 2 shaped J.D. Salinger, calling it the “ghost in the machine of all his stories” and rightfully so—this is the meat of the film, providing an unparalleled glimpse into something that affected the author’s work profoundly. Salinger was very patriotic and determined to serve in the war and voluntarily enlisted, not even imagining the horrors that lay ahead. Being a part of D Day (while carrying six chapters of Catcher In The Rye in his pocket) and the ensuing 200 days of battle, he fought in the fields of France aptly called “the meat grinder,” where routinely 200 men would die in the span of a couple of hours. Witnessing the sheer desecration of humanity in camps abandoned by the Nazis left lasting scars on Salinger’s mind and he suffered a nervous breakdown in Normandy. His treatment and the themes of “craziness” and damage to innocence would make an indelible mark on his writing, finding its way into almost all of his stories. Salinger’s coverage of the author’s war years also shines a light on his complexity as a character—despite his later reputation as a recluse, he was affable, close to his fellow soldiers, and very in tune with the perspective of both the victims and the perpetrators, especially when he started working as a war investigator in the aftermath. He also met Hemingway there who was very encouraging of the young author.
The only significant way in which Salinger sputters is when the film starts to psychoanalyze Salinger, ascribing motivations without much ground for the conjecturing and the giving of voice to opposing views makes for a rather meandering “was he or was he not” narrative. For example, a lot of time is spent on Salinger being the “Howard Hughes of his day” yet aside from choosing to live in the woods, one would be hard pressed to see what other “idiosyncracies” he displayed. As for the recluse moniker–by all appearances, he was far from it. His retreat to Cornish, New Hampshire was a rather pragmatically-driven quest for find peace and silence to continue to work. He certainly seemed to be social enough in the town itself. He protective of just how much the public extracted from him, granting interviews on his own terms and with the reporters he trusted and staying actively plugged in. Salinger also suggests that Salinger IS Holden Caulfield and that all of his writing is essentially autobiographical, which does not seem to be of tremendous relevance nor anything specifically endemic to Salinger as an author. As Salinger once aptly put it, “I am a fiction writer, not a counselor.”
Salinger also delves rather deeply into Salinger’s relationships with women (specifically younger women). To its credit, the movie does not attempt to sensationalize those relationships under a queasiness-inducing rubric, but it does suggest, perhaps groundlessly, that he was platonically attracted to the innocence he saw in them and once he perceived them as “women,” he grew disinterested. It also uncovers the author’s deep devotion to the Vedanta Hindu religious tradition and his daily meditation. There are some rather ham-handed plot-propelling devices too, like the constant flashing of one and the same picture or of the image of an actor sitting behind a typewriter in a giant movie theatre. The part of the film that delves into all of the killers who claimed that The Catcher In The Rye made them do it (John Hinckley, Mark David Chapman) also seemed entirely out of place with the rest of the narrative and thrown in for pure shock value.
Salinger offers an enthralling look into the creative process of the author. Salinger was really committed to writing a “good book and not just a best seller,” when he set out to write Catcher In The Rye. He was fanatically perfectionistic in his approach and fiercely protective of his work, to the point of being maniacal even about the punctuation. He toiled assiduously, doggedly writing all day, every day, to the detriment of anyone and anything around him. Ultimately, like his fellow creative geniuses, he espoused passion—“there has to be fire between the words.”
Salinger is a paean to lovely mystery that writing really is and a tribute to a man who wanted to be known for his work rather than for himself. The big revelation of Salinger’s end is that a lot of the late author’s works will be released starting 2015, including the completion of the Holden Caulfield and the Glass families stories as well as books on the Vedanta religious tradition.