Making a documentary about the 20th (and 21st) century’s most notorious recluse is rife with both hazards and rewards for filmmaker Shane Salerno, whose “Salinger” has to make do without a single video or audio clip of its titular subject — not because of rights restrictions, but because they apparently don’t exist. That’s an awfully big hole to compensate for, but then again, as anyone who ever enjoyed “The Usual Suspects” could tell you, having a central figure whom everyone talks about but hardly anyone has ever seen can make for a pretty compelling mystery yarn.
The documentary and its accompanying 700-page book were withheld not just from the public but even from most press until Monday’s world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, even though the film hits theaters this Friday. The withholding was presumably to create shock and awe with the climactic revelation that all the writing J.D. Salinger was working on since he stopped publishing in the mid-‘60s will finally be posthumously published after all, starting in 2015. (If you’re in your 90s or 100s and have been clinging to life just to find out more about what became of the fictional Glass family, hope you can hold out a little longer.)
The good news is that you don’t have to be a fan of Salinger’s writing to get caught up in a detective story of what makes a toast of the literary town decide to disappear from public view for the last 45 years of his life. Dozens of interviewees, many of whom knew Salinger at some point in his life before he inevitably felt betrayed and shut them out, labor to shed light on the unknowable with answers that range from the profound to the petty. One theory is that he suffered from post-traumatic stress after his WWII combat duty, and it just didn’t kick in in a major way until he withdrew around 1965.
But another more interesting and considerably less flattering hypothesis is that the man behind the curtain kind of liked the idea of being the center of attention by refusing almost all attention. If so, it’s an interesting strategy for a narcissist, and we can think of a few radically overexposed celebs we wish would give it a try. As is duly noted, Salinger would occasionally explain himself, at least for a few moments, to reporters and fans who made the trek to his New Hampshire town, hoping for a snapshot or some guidance. He certainly wasn’t a complete loner either, as quickly becomes apparent when the film gets into his history of seducing very young women into dysfunctional and mostly asexual relationships.
Was he a humble hero for embracing the idea that you should write for the sake of satisfying yourself, not your public, as he did for almost a half-century? Or was he a skeevy, wildly egotistical villain who enjoyed being able to use his famous name to lure naïve young girls into his lair so that they could… well, it sounds like he and his age-inappropriate paramours spent a lot of time watching “Lost Horizon” together? The director doesn’t seem sure, which maybe is as it should be.
If you’ve seen the trailer for “Salinger,” you may have been taken aback by the loud, pulse-pounding music, which seemed a little bit incongruous for a profile of a literary figure, but you assumed that was just to get people into theaters under the pretense of presenting a thriller. Unfortunately, that overkill of a score is in the film itself, too. It’s tempting to laugh in the opening minutes when a Newsweek photographer’s recounting of his trip to New Hampshire to get a photo of Salinger is accompanied by suspense music better suited for a bloated superhero movie. The orchestra is trying to tell us the world is at risk, when it’s just an anecdote about catching a guy coming out of the post office, for criminy’s sake.
If only the eventual DVD would come with a “no score” audio option, since that blaring music rarely lets up for two hours. But most of Salerno’s other choices are smart ones, including his decision to intercut ancient stories of Salinger’s school or war experiences with contemporary tales of acolytes and journalists trying to track him down as an old man. There’s no clear aesthetic reason for jumping back and forth between the ‘30s and ‘90s, but the director is undoubtedly correct in assuming that we don’t want to hear all about D-Day and teen girlfriends before getting to the good stuff, which is the puzzlement over why he ended up as pop culture’s quintessential weird old man.
Although unnecessary talking heads like Judd Apatow, Martin Sheen, and Philip Seymour Hoffman pop up in the early going to evangelize the disinterested, the film does thankfully settle in to more qualified witnesses, including one-time pals like A.E. Hotchner, a former best friend who became estranged from Salinger for life after the magazine he worked for retitled one of his short stories. A couple of the women who figured into the author’s very unusual love life also speak at length, including Joyce Maynard, who was at the premiere and told well-wishers afterward that she considered the film not hard enough on Salinger’s victimizing tendencies.
Maynard’s right, but so will other viewers be when they inevitably complain that the film gives short shrift to the actual content and literary merit of Salinger’s work. But given that this isn’t the extended TV mini-series that the subject deserves, “Salinger” does an effective job of making the writer seem alternately more mundane and more mysterious, almost at the same time. Would Holden Caulfield have considered Salinger a phony? Maybe only his postmaster knows for sure. [B+]