1. When you promote a movie like Salinger has been promoted, it really needs to deliver.
If you had gotten excited about Shane Salerno’s Salinger, do lower your expectations as far as they can go if you’re still going to see it despite the negative reviews. OK, lemme see those expectations. No, no — lower! Billed as a literary mystery delving into J.D. Salinger’s life with a secret as twisty as The Crying Game, this hyped documentary, which did not screen for critics and has a book to accompany it, should be an unqualified impressive achievement. Instead, it cannot get out of its own way. Stitching together the story of Salinger’s life, work, and reclusion could be enough for a great documentary story; uncovering that he has five new works set to be released beginning in 2015 (assuming this discovery is true) is the revelation of a reporter’s lifetime. But this mannered, repetitive, over-the-top film cannot let these things be. This photograph above, for instance? It’s of Salinger working on The Catcher in the Rye during World War II, and was taken by his friend. It’s incredibly moving, the idea of him grabbing time to write during the most brutal days of World War II, which would — the movie argues convincingly — damage him for the rest of his life. Instead, as with all photographs in this movie, when you see it once, you see it 15 more times.
2. It doesn’t help that the movie’s “secret” has now been revealed everywhere.
The fact that the five new books exist and we will get to read them soon (again, if it’s true!) was meant to be a shock. Last month, at a press conference for the PBS series American Masters, Susan Lacy, the series’ creator and executive producer, told journalists that Salinger, which will air in 2014 as the 200th American Masters, was a “closely-guarded film.” She continued: “The Weinstein Company is, in fact, promoting this, sort of like they did The Crying Game. You kind of can’t know the ending.” Well. The Crying Game came out in 1992; 21 years later, there’s no such thing as a well-kept secret. We’ll never know, though, whether audiences would have kept silent, because on Aug. 25, The New York Times published a story by Michael Cieply and Julie Bosman with the headline “Film on Salinger Claims More Books Are Coming.” With all the details of what the movie reveals. Oh well, right? That the spoilage occurred is actually even more frustrating after you see the movie knowing that you will learn this only at the film’s end, with no details about how Salerno and his team discovered this genuinely huge information.
3. Salinger relies heavily on reenactments —
— and they are terrible.
This choice of Salerno’s is by far his worst. We see an actor playing Salinger, usually on a stage in front of a screen, typing furiously, smoking, looking frustrated. Was he worried that he didn’t have enough material? Salinger runs longer than two hours, and of the criticisms I have, it being boring is not one. So why use this bizarre, embarrassing device? A thousand yikes.
4. Even a real person reenacts something he did.
The beginning of the film shows Michael McDermott, in the present day, sitting in a car across from the post office in Vermont where he snapped the famous photograph of Salinger below (in 1979 while on assignment from Newsweek). McDermott narrates what it was like, with a camera in hand, and we see him go from color to black-and-white. I will say this for Salinger: it announces its style from the very beginning.
A screengrab of McDermott’s photograph.
5. Throughout the film, Salinger seems to be in a full panic that we don’t see him enough.
This picture, Salinger’s author photograph from the Catcher in the Rye jacket, is shown many, many times. I get it: Even though J.D. Salinger was alive during a time when there could be thousands of pictures of him in existence, there are few. But that should be OK: Documentaries have been made about things that happened before photography was perfected, or even existed. But instead of relying on his talking heads, a photograph of Salinger smiling is floated when there’s a story being told about him being happy; one of him looking stern stands in for him being angry or feeling betrayed. It’s so odd.
6. The talking heads can’t just be talking heads.
At one point, to emphasize Salinger’s work being rejected, we hear a succession of “no’s” from the Salinger punditry the film has assembled. (Biographers, friends, famous admirers.) It’s such an irritating tic. But I was driven nearly to madness during the portion of the movie devoted to Salinger’s infamous, disturbing relationship with Joyce Maynard, to whom he wrote letters after she was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine at age 18. She soon moved in with him, they became lovers, and he was awful to her. Maynard has a revealing and upsetting story about Salinger to tell here, which she has told before in her memoir At Home in the World. But still, I wanted to hear it, and hearing it plain would have been great. Instead, Salerno cut in between two interviews with her in which she’s telling of her final confrontation with Salinger. At least I think that was what she was saying. The technique was as distracting — and unnecessary — as you can possibly imagine.
7. Speaking of talking heads, apparently, we need famous people to tell us why Catcher in the Rye was important.
I’d be happy to see a movie with Edward Norton or John Cusack (or Martin Sheen or Philip Seymour Hoffman or etc.) in it. I don’t need them to tell me, however, about the work of J.D. Salinger. Maybe James Franco, though! Wait, where is he? Weird.
8. It’s not just famous people who read Catcher in the Rye, though; apparently lots of people have read it.
This visual of Catcher in the Rye being popular made me laugh out loud.
Because seriously, you guys, that book is popular!
Related complaint: There is so much time spent on Catcher in the Rye, which, at least to me, is the most well-trod territory, that all of Salinger’s other work gets short-shrift. He wrote “Franny” about and for his wife, Claire? Tell me more. No? Sigh. OK.
9. In the end, I felt pretty terrible having seen this movie at all.
Toward the end of Salinger, John Guare brings up the disturbing fact that three separate high-profile madmen — Mark David Chapman (who killed John Lennon), John Hinckley, Jr. (who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan), and Robert John Bardo (who murdered the young actress Rebecca Schaeffer) — were obsessed with Catcher in the Rye and used it to explain their crimes. It’s an intriguing, disturbing cultural legacy of Salinger’s work, and Guare wonders how he would feel if his writings were used by violent lunatics in such a manner. And that’s where the question ends — since there’s no reporting or evidence in the film that Salinger himself wondered about or was disturbed by this unintended audience of his. Salinger is full of sad people whose lives were negatively affected by Salinger, either because he hurt them directly or because they became fetishistically obsessed with his creations. Did Salerno end up being one of them? Am I, sitting there in the audience, now one of them? It’s a heavy thought. Unfortunately, like so much else evinced by Salinger, it also felt like a cheap one.