Director: Shane Salerno
Writer: Shane Salerno & Buddy Squires
Cinematography: Anthony Savini and Buddy Squires
by Jon Cvack
I was hesitant to watch this after hearing that it contained a lot of fluff and embellishment, which isn’t to say it doesn’t. The film split between providing biography about the man of which I knew absolutely nothing about and focusing on gossip and hearsay. For instance, his first love ended up as the wife to Charlie Chaplin; prior to his fame, he had Ernest Hemingway check out and approve his work; he served in WWII and saw just short of 300 days of straight combat; and he had a strange affection for very young girls.
I’m not familiar with Salinger’s work beyond The Catcher and the Rye, and even that I’d have to reread after breezing through it in order to impress a girl back in college. In high school, the book was so trendy that it became unpopular in most alternative groups; it was the book people who didn’t actually read a lot books read, up there with Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk, other authors that were reserved for trendy scenester (later called hipsters - and no, I don’t have any disdain for these authors; it’s just how they were regarded, back then), with a few local bands even naming themselves after some of Salinger's characters.
I recall being in my U.S. Government class, which was filled with seniors, many of whom were close friends with one another, leaving me as the odd and younger man out, having little to offer. One day, a hippie dude with dreadlocks who was obsessed with Phish asked why school taught so much literature that involved rebellious teenagers - A Separate Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, and of course The Catcher in the Rye - when it was evident that the school would severely discipline any student who attempted to mimic the characters. It was a great question and I still agree with the premise. I recall the teacher regretfully agreeing with the student, and offering limited insight beyond that’s just how things go.
J.D. Salinger had the ambition and discipline that’s common in most writers I explore - David Foster Wallace, Charles Bukowski, Gore Vidal, Ernest Hemingway and others. Writing wasn’t about want, it was about need. Once J.D. Salinger received the fame he coveted, he didn’t like how it forced him to express himself, demanding he keep producing material. As Philip Seymour Hoffman mentions, once you lose that anonymity you realize how precious it is. And thus, J.D. Salinger moved to rural New Hampshire, spending days, sometimes weeks, writing in an old bar alone.
Yet contrary, to accusations of extreme reclusiveness, Salinger is actually very involved in Cornish, NH. He visits with his neighbors and friends, visits the town to pick up his mail, and has no problem showing his face. I’ll say the film battled my generalities - I thought he was up there with Thomas Pynchon’s level of privacy. According to those that knew him and his life during the time, it’s just not true.
But that’s just the interesting information. On the flip side is a strange editing trick that the filmmakers did where the interview subjects say the exact same things in different locations, which conveniently allows the film to cut back and forth between different locations/times of day in order to allow them to convey the message at a much faster pace. I can’t help feeling bad for these subjects as they were evidently directed to sit in one place, recount a difficult story, only to have to do it all over again in another location. I don’t understand the purpose of this other than to have a more creative way to relay a story, which really becomes distracting. I understand the need to move things along, but this film cuts so fast that it begins to feel disrespectful to everyone involved; as though the filmmakers had no patience to just let a story go and its subjects lend their thoughts on the legend.
Added, are two individuals who the filmmakers crossed the line with while interviewing. One involved a crazy fan who felt that he had so much in common with Salinger that he essentially hunted him down, with the filmmakers following the man to Salinger’s house, only to discover an abrasive J.D. who had no interest in talking to the man. This guy is exceptionally creepy, with a gaze in his eyes that felt unsafe to put up on screen. I understand that it was to allow the individual to share his story, yet why did they have to support going all the way back to Salinger’s house in order to do it? I also don’t get the point in including these crazed fans, who contribute nothing to the story, other than to demonstrate that crazed fans 1) do exist and 2) they’re much crazier than you realize.
My other problem involved one of Salinger’s old lovers who had written a memoir on her tumultuous relationship with the guy. After having some early success as a young 18-year old writer, she was contacted by Salinger and invited to his house, where they began to date, in some way or other. However, she wanted kids and he didn’t and after visiting Daytona Beach with his two sons, he declared that he couldn’t have anymore kids and sent the girl on her way. Later, she published all of his love letters, which were purchased by a Silicon Valley executive and returned to Salinger to avoid the personal invasion. That didn’t prevent her from writing a book that documented the entire relationship, or the filmmakers to discuss the topic. It’s one thing to include her, since she was so vital to the story, but again, I just don’t understand the point of giving her so much screen time. It’s clear that she had little respect for the man, and J.D. had little respect for her. So why include her biased thoughts in a documentary that’s simply exploring the author’s work? It seemed to serve little purpose beyond adding some juicy gossip to his extraordinary life.
BELOW: The legend on the legend (which is a bit creepy given his fate)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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