CAMERA SHY: Shot during World World II, this image of J.D. Salinger is one of the many never-before-seen photographs that appear in the eponymous documentary.
City Paper grade: C
Of all the captivating and uncomfortable revelations crammed into Shane Salerno’s dense, dawdling documentary, the way J.D. Salinger returned a phone call in 1974 to New York Times writer Lacey Fosburgh might say the most: “This is a man called Salinger.” America’s premier literary hermit up until his death in 2010, the writer of The Catcher in the Rye had long held a reputation as a recluse — a reputation, Salerno reveals, masterfully engineered by Salinger himself. While a true shut-in would rarely set foot outside (and never return a reporter’s call), Salinger popped up in public, kept up correspondences and teased the media far more than we assumed. The mystery surrounding his life was an intricate device — one only an artist with the balls to self-mythologize in the third person could construct.
Primarily a screenwriter, Salerno spent the better part of 10 years developing Salinger, and stories of the production’s intense secrecy succeeded in building up Capone’s-vault-type hype for the big reveal. What he’s created has undeniable journalistic merit, a triumph of detail that will impress both casual Salinger-gazers and devotees who have consumed everything up to 1965, when he was last published.
But the feature has less value as a dramatic construct, recycling imagery and forcing drama while insisting it’s more than just a very good History Channel special.
Heavyweights like Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal get the talking-head treatment, and there are plenty of fashionable “defined who we are as an American people” sound bites. But Salerno does a particularly good job of mining information from non-household names, especially those associated with Salinger’s time fighting in World War II, which Salerno claims served as “the ghost in the machine” for much of the writer’s work.
Salinger’s love life, centered on women decades his junior, is discussed in tandem with his writing, but positing that his interest in these women was emblematic of his infatuation with youth comes off as an academic excuse for a clinical problem. The bottom line was that he cared more about his fiction than his family, sticking to rigid ascetic practices that helped him both create and disconnect. He was a deplorable father and husband, his lowest moments trivialized via trite reenactments that wouldn’t seem out of place on Unsolved Mysteries.
The ultimate payoff, of course, comes in the form of the supposedly airtight details of Salinger’s posthumous releases, long-shrouded material that will formally address the “what’s he been doing?” question. (Yes, the name Caulfield comes up.) Like the lore of Salinger, that stuff will sell itself, even if Salerno seems convinced it needs adornment.
Salinger | Directed by Shane Salerno, a Weinstein Company release, running time of 2 hours, opens Fri., Sept. 20.
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