Salinger, Shane Salerno’s heavily hyped, 10-years-in-the-making documentary about the life of the reclusive author, had definitively lost me (and, judging by the snickers, much of the rest of the audience) by the time it got to the log-toting scene. This image—of a beefcakey young actor playing Salinger, nobly shouldering a large piece of timber as he hiked alone through the New Hampshire countryside—came near the end of a slapdash first hour, in which still photographs from Jerome David Salinger’s privileged early life in Manhattan were intercut with brief snippets of talking-head interviews from writers (John Guare, Gore Vidal, Robert Towne), actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack, Ed Norton), and a handful of Salinger’s contemporaries and acquaintances. (Most people who were truly close to the author during his life, including his surviving family members, understandably refused to participate in this tabloid undertaking.)
The log-tote wasn’t the first time Salinger employed the re-enactment technique familiar from countless History Channel infotainments, but it seemed to mark the moment in which the movie committed fully to its tone of solemn, literal-minded vulgarity. That same actor—a hunkier and more telegenic version of the lanky, long-faced, diffidently handsome Salinger—also appears at intervals on an empty stage, bent over his typewriter as a screen behind him flashes images from the author’s life in a deeply misguided attempt at some sort of theatrical representation of his writing process.
That Salinger, who died in 2010 at age 91 after five decades of withdrawal from public life, would have blanched at this invasion of his zealously guarded privacy is obvious (and would have been the case even if Salinger had been the tasteful and scrupulously reported document this movie so flagrantly is not). But what’s staggering about Salinger is how completely it misunderstands—or more often, simply ignores—what made its subject matter, well, matter. Salerno (and his interviewees, at least as he edits them) seems obsessed with the figure of the writer as celebrity, as recluse, as reluctant guru, and—in a creepy section on Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr.’s Catcher in the Rye fixations—as supposed inciter to acts of violence. But there’s virtually no attention paid to Salinger’s language, the finely wrought prose and keen ear for the American vernacular that made him stand out among midcentury writers of fiction. Perhaps for copyright reasons, quotes from his work are nearly absent: Tiny phrases from The Catcher in the Rye occasionally appear in intertitles (as when a montage of childhood photos is preceded by the phrase “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”), but when they come, such moments are cringe-inducingly glib.
It’s not that you won’t learn anything about Salinger’s life from watching Salinger, though with the exception of the much-touted information about possible new publications forthcoming from his estate, most of these facts could be less painfully gleaned from any decent biography. Salerno and his collaborator David Shields (who helped compile the clip-job biography that’s being released as a companion volume to the film) spared no expense or energy combing the globe for tidbits about their elusive subject. There are previously unseen photos of the author with his buddies in uniform during World War II, during which he served as an Army counterintelligence officer and took part in D-Day, the liberation of Dachau, and the legendarily brutal battle to take Germany’s Hürtgen Forest. (The fact that six chapters of the Catcher in the Rye manuscript were on the author’s person when he stormed the beaches at Normandy isn’t new to this film, but it’s a powerfully touching detail nonetheless.) There’s some new, if dubious, intelligence about Salinger’s short-lived first marriage to a German national named Sylvia Welter, whom he met just after the war (and who, Salerno and Shields suggest with more enthusiasm than evidence, may have been a Gestapo collaborator.)
A short black-and-white clip of Salinger on V-E Day, accepting flowers from a crowd of smiling Parisians, is introduced with a breathless intertitle about “never-before-seen footage,” then unspooled for the viewer in reverent silence. As overwrought as this presentation is, those few seconds of quiet serve as a welcome respite from the ubiquitous, histrionic music (by Lorne Balfe) that relentlessly pounds away at what Salinger’s preteen heroine Esmé would refer to as the viewer’s “f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s.” When, in the last few minutes, the movie ramps up for its big reveal about the possible publication of new Salinger manuscripts, Balfe’s score reaches a volume and intensity that suggest the Glass and Caulfield family chronicles allegedly set to come out in the next few years will be less books than book-shaped explosive devices.
Salinger proceeds in an order that’s neither chronological nor thematic; Salerno will dwell on, say, the wartime years for 20 straight minutes, then randomly leap forward to a single anecdote about the author’s hermetic late period, then meander back to his early adulthood again, making the film as a whole feel shapeless and pointlessly long. A few storytellers stand out: Jean Miller, who met the 30-year-old Salinger on a Florida beach when she was 14 and who, he once told her, inspired the story “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” movingly relates the slightly queasy story of their chaste four-year flirtation, which Salinger broke off abruptly after she finally seduced him at the age of 18. The vision that emerges of Salinger’s relationships with women—his early love Oona O’Neill, the mother of his children, Claire Douglas, and the writer Joyce Maynard, who later wrote a kiss-and-tell memoir about their 10-month-long affair—is a bleak one, suggesting a man who spent his life fixated on a fantasy of youthful innocence while refusing to contend with the realities of day-to-day domestic love.
The mystery of J.D. Salinger—why he wrote, why he stopped publishing, who he was—has survived half a century of attempts at desecration, from the importuning, wisdom-seeking fans who for decades staked out his house in Cornish, N.H., to the sickening second life of The Catcher in the Rye as a manual for high-profile murderers. That mystery is certainly hardy enough to withstand the voyeuristic onslaught of this self-aggrandizing, lurid documentary, which leaves the viewer feeling that we’ve been given a tour of Salinger’s septic tank in hip waders without ever getting to knock on his door and say hello.