No matter how fascinating the man (such as one can glean) and his writing may continue to be, Salinger is naggingly inert. All the intrigue swirling around in my head regarding the subject is due to this exhaustive documentary, but it fails to possess any kind of authorial voice or identity of its own. And when you’re dealing with reclusive, mysterious subjects of such renown, it’s best you bring something of your own to the table (see Room 237). Instead, this documentary is borderline A&E, where you have to pick through a lot of obligatory sentiment and slow push inserts of the same photographs over and over.
What we have here is a worthy subject posthumously stuck with a profile that falls considerably short of doing him justice. There is also an accompanying book. And apparently those involved are making a biopic. All this gives me the impression of by-product. It’s like the special features on a non-existent DVD set. To be fair though, a dramatic portrayal of Salinger’s life has potential. At it’s worst it wouldn’t be quite as garish and litanous as this documentary. Interviews cut to different takes of the same person telling the same story to no effect beyond confusion. A silent Salinger stand-in pounds away at a typewriter in front of big screen projecting grisly images of WWII. This motif is repeated so much it begins to feel like padding, rather than some insidious Errol Morris-type device that is as functional as it is delirium inducing. Similarly, the music is as pat and condescending as can be, holding the audience’s hand through every emotional beat.
Perhaps it’s nitpicking to address these issues, but the film is similarly fussy. In trying to paint a picture of a mysterious artist it only succeeds in making the existing fragments of the author’s life sketchier. There’s a lot a empty space between the events discussed, to the point where the insiders and outsiders of the author’s life start to blend together. The guy was not making a statement. He wasn’t “tuning out.” He was private and a workaholic. He survived D-Day and was there when they liberated Dachau. He occasionally attempted (and sometimes succeeded) to court random women through letters. But I think it’s obvious he didn’t need a movie made about his life. He required his work and his work alone to speak for him. When that wasn’t good enough, he wanted to do it for his own peace of mind. A compelling and perhaps dubious concept, but it seems that’s what he did. What’s fascinating is that someone with such an idiosyncratic, uncompromisingly personal point of view got through to so many in the first place. And that the work that broke him through remains (and will remain, barring any legal loopholes) uncorrupted. Unless you count three murderers citing it as the inspiration for their deeds.
I’d like to think that that these mentally unstable people only misread Catcher, a ubiquitous pop culture phenom, to suit their degenerated psyches. When I first read it, I immediately recognized Holden’s anger as the pathetic wailings of the social outcast. I hated him, like myself, because he spent way much more time singling out who was a “phony” to work on his own issues. He held people to impossible standards, wafting around as though he was god’s eye in a cloud. But by the novel’s conclusion it’s the sadness we’re left with. So vividly rendered is Holden’s breakdown that you are, in the end, cowering in the overwhelming tragedy and unjustness of life and innocence lost. It’s a powerful book, but perhaps somewhat dangerous in its singularity. Maybe the same can be said of the author. His view was that of a man who’s seen the very extremities of the horror that war has to offer. His place in the world was uncertain but he was certain in his vision. In his craft he found his life’s purpose. I’d take that conviction over the push-pull madness a celebrity lifestyle seems to consist of any old day.
Celebrity is what bolsters the by-products of art - the commerce of creativity. Unlike the film that shares his name, Salinger was/is a true source. His thoroughly uncompromising approach to his life and work serves to reveal efforts such as this as the parasitic, flailing slogs of aimless zeitgeist chasing that they are. As others have implied, a more fitting tribute would’ve been to respect the man’s lifelong plea for privacy. I dare say the curious (guilty) and obsessed could easily find better ways to spend their time.