It’s too obvious to say J.D. Salinger would’ve hated the new documentary about his life and work (emphasis on the former), because anyone who knows anything about him knows that he’d have hated any movie, book, personal essay, or blog post on either of those subjects, even a great one.
It feels safer to suggest that he’d have especially hated Salinger, which is so powerfully not-great that one feels a pang of empathy for the late author, who spent most of his 91 years discouraging people from exploring his private life. If this is what interests the hoi polloi of his readership, if this is how his former friends, colleagues, and lovers express themselves, no wonder Salinger wanted nothing to do with them.
Under the guise of literary intrepidity, filmmaker Shane Salerno proceeds to violate Salinger’s storied privacy with all the delicacy of TMZ. But the problem is less to do with the information revealed (a lot of which is undeniably of interest to devotees, and journalistically hard-won), than with the salacious presumptuousness of the film’s tone.
It’s not that Salerno is investigating a private man’s private contradictions, it’s that he seems to resent the temerity of Salinger's having cultivated the persona of a recluse while still having human desires, human traits, human flaws. It comes not to praise Caesar but to dig him up, defile his corpse. The film shames Salinger for being an irreconcilably imperfect man while striving for perfection in his work, for not being a “true recluse” (a recurring phrase) because he sometimes gave in to the ego he was attempting to eradicate, and for having unorthodox courtly relationships with young girls and women.
The film is a double act with the new biography by Salerno and David Shields, which shares a great deal of the testimony offered in the film. And while the book offers its own spiritual and moral tangles, it succeeds at least by meeting the writer on his home court.
In addition to its mightily impressive research, it contains speculation that successfully captures not Salinger, but the frustrating experience of being moderately-to-not-so-moderately obsessed with Salinger’s mystery. The book understands that loving Salinger's work intensely, leads to frustration that there is so little of it in print, which often extends to constructing an elaborate fiction about his inner life just to satisfy your thirst for more of the Glasses, the Caulfields, all of them.
What’s different in the movie is that you see the talking heads’ delight at finally being able to dish their well-rehearsed Salinger stories before a camera; you see the unbalanced faces of the stalkers who staked Salinger out because they thought he had answers for them, and you see the camera tacitly blaming Salinger for not being more available to them.
Worst of all, you see the excruciating reenactments of events being described, including a recurring motif in which an actor (never seen in close-up) impersonates Salinger typing and smoking while huge images of war, or former girlfriends, loom over him on a movie screen, or walking through the Bradbury Building in LA to drop off a manuscript.
These reenactments, now a commonplace of documentaries, are both contemptible and contemptuous, partly because they’re distracting, partly because they’re insultingly literalistic, and partly because it feels like the filmmaker knew they were precisely the kind of phony flourishes Salinger would have hated most, and put them in not despite but because of that, as a postmortem “Fuck You” on the wall of the elementary school of his psyche.
Salinger reveals a lot of facts about its subject, some of which you might wish you could un-know and some, like the image of him storming Utah Beach on D-Day with six chapters of Catcher in the Rye in his flak jacket, are instantly indelible. With so fascinating a subject, and such thoroughgoing journalistic diligence, the film remains full of interest. It also remains full of actors, famous ones, discussing their love of the author. It’s telling that despite the gratuitousness of their presence, one of them, Martin Sheen, provides the movie’s only real gravitas. (Again, the book is a better, more expansive treatment of this material.)
We learn that Salinger kept writing, that there are several finished works. We see unseen photos, hear unheard text. Perhaps Salinger’s greatest service comes when someone correctly pronounces the name Zooey (rhymes with “chewy”), short for Zachary.
But the film mainly reveals Salinger by the magnitude by which it misses him. Maybe “misses” isn’t right. The magnitude of its will to reduce him to the most cynical human dimension. It attempts to cram a great artist’s impossibly complicated inner life into a frame made by and for a world he wanted no part of.
True, that doesn’t exempt him from critical thought, but Salinger isn’t critical. It isn’t curious. It’s vengeful, acquisitive, invidious, prurient, gauche. By the time it gets around to the section on Catcher’s terrible centrality to the murder of John Lennon and the-less-terrible-but-still-terrible attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan, the film becomes irredeemably ghastly.
But it certainly doesn’t demystify the durably holy experience of reading his fiction. Far from obliterating his enigma with damning information and innuendo, the film only serves to fortify Salinger’s mystery. You’d have to be pretty generous to imagine that anyone involved was interested in doing that. No one could have embarked on so exhaustive a project without retaining trace elements of admiration for the writing—in the same way Seymour tells Buddy that every “God-damn” is “a low form of prayer”—they are overwhelmed by bathos, gossip, and the unmistakable stench of genius envy.
The Catcher in the Rye is one of those rare cultural phenomena that basically everyone has both a strong opinion about, and an intimate relationship with. One of the most painful experiences in a life of loving that book is finding yourself trapped in a conversation with someone who loves it just as ardently as you do, but for reasons you not only can’t fathom, but actively reject, like people who love the Beatles because of their politics.
That’s the feeling of watching Salinger. Someone asks you what writers you like, you say J.D. Salinger, and then for two hours, it’s a litany of, “Well, you know he wasn’t a real recluse, and did you know he liked young girls, and wasn’t a good husband or father, and sure, maybe he saw some terrible things in the war, and all that stuff about the ego—he had a huge ego! And and by the way did you know about his genital deformation?” Until you can’t wait for it to end, for everyone’s sake.
Many reviewers have made the obvious joke that Holden Caulfield would’ve hated Salinger because it’s so phony—and he would have, and it is. But I kept thinking of another Salinger character, if you want to know the goddamn truth. Watching this movie is like getting stuck having lunch with Lane Coutell.