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Harvey Weinstein's 'Salinger' Is a Master Class in Spin

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire October 3, 2013 at 3:28PM

Critics weren't kind to Shane Salerno's documentary on J.D. Salinger. But Harvey Weinstein has turned the film's marketing into a work of art.
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Salinger

You have to hand it to Harvey Weinstein -- because if you don't, he will snatch it right out of your fist. Weinstein orchestrated a masterful sell-the-sizzle prerelease campaign for Shane Salerno's documentary Salinger, touting the movie's explosive secrets and forcing critics who got an early look at it to sign non-disclosure agreements lest its bombshells drop on an unsuspecting public. But once critics were finally allowed to weigh in, it turned out the movie had been withheld from the press for a far more mundane reason: It stunk. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott said it was "less a work of cinema than the byproduct of its own publicity campaign," and Slate's Julia Turner called it "the single worst movie I've ever seen in my life. It's almost worth seeing to see how bad something can be." ("Almost worth seeing!" -- Slate.) Criticwire's C+ average is generous next to the movie's 40 on Metacritic and its 34 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

But Weinstein wasn't licked yet. He paid for Salerno to recut the film, addressing some of critics' complaints and adding new footage, and got Esquire to lend Salerno a soapbox to plead his case at length:

[T]here have been several reviews of the film that have said, more or less, "Leave Salinger alone. He wrote beautiful books. That’s all we ever want to know about him." And yet I am, in a way, making a very Salingeresque gesture: reading past the phony facade to the core actuality underneath: my goal is not to "bring Salinger down" but to show the horrific springs of art and the endless cost of war.

The latest salvo in the Salinger siege is the release of previously unpublished letters in which Salinger, contrary to the widely held belief that he held the movies in disregard, proclaims his guarded enthusiasm for "certain kinds of film." Responding to an inquiry from Danish director Henning Carlsen (which Salinger spells "Carlson") about adapting The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger wrote:

It isn't true, at all, that I "hate" or dislike all films, and it's always a more than a little offputting, not to say irritating, to hear that I do.... What would be, I think, perfectly accurate to say is that I have no professional interest whatever in films or stage plays.... The only theater I want to write for is the little marvellous one inside the individual reader's mind.

This might not seem like big news; no one but a confirmed crank would write off an entire artistic medium. But it matters a lot in the context of Weinstein's next move, which is a fictional version of Salinger's life, with a screenplay written by Salerno. We can't have the director of a discredited documentary writing a movie about a man who hated movies, now can we? I haven't seen Salinger, and to be honest, I'm not eager to. It can't possibly be as engrossing as watching Harvey Weinstein spin.


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