Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Salinger Review by Grace Lovelace (Six Degrees of Salinger)

J.D. Salinger writing Catcher in the Rye.

Shane Salerno’s Salinger arrives with many of the cheesy touches one would expect from a one-time Michael Bay collaborator, but also a feast of new information. Of particular interest are  a host of new images of Salinger himself, as well as interviews with one-time intimates. Following his death, everyone, is seems,  is anxious to spill the beans, to dance a little jig on the grave of Old Grey. This includes, surprisingly enough, fellow patriarchs of American literature such as E.L. Doctorow and Tom Wolfe. While it may cross our minds that these  writers have a strong financial interest in filmic representations of their books, and perhaps in cultivating relationships with producer Harvey Weinstein,  let’s set that aside for the moment. This is no time for our people hunting hat. (But, wait, what is Philip Seymour Hoffman doing here, pontificating on fame and artistic integrity? Is he starring in the upcoming biopic? And David Shields? He wrote the 800-page blockbuster tie-in, of course. Excuse my distractedness, my Holden Caulfield-brand bullshit detector keeps going off.)
There are, however,  some significant payoffs to the Weinsteins throwing their weight around. Here they are, in the order in which they appear:
1) An array of images of Salinger’s life as a soldier, like that above of “Jerry” working on an early version of Catcher in the Rye while on active combat duty. (He carried pages of the manuscript with him to the beaches of Normandy on D Day.)  Salinger, it seems, was part of a very tight-knit counterintelligence ring. They stayed in touch for the rest of their lives; some of them took pictures.
2) Footage of Jean Miller, the basis for the Esmé character  in  For Esmé—with Love & Squalor, Salinger’s breakthrough work for the New Yorker concerning a shell-shocked war veteran.  Fifteen when they met on a Daytona beach in the early fifties, she recounts how he pursued her until, on a weekend trip to Montreal she initiated sexual contact. The next day they were through.
3) A timetable and description of the unpublished Salinger works to be released  by the estate over the course of the next decade.
In terms of actual revelations, that’s pretty much it. For those paying attention, the Salinger fortress was breached years ago, stone by stone,  as memoirs were published  by his daughter and girlfriend. Rather than covering new ground, Salerno borrows liberally from these works, as well as from Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography J. D. Salinger, which established  important connections between Salinger’s fiction and his largely untreated PTSD. Indeed, apart from the photographic scoops, Salerno’s  examination of Salinger’s war years appears pedestrian and without nuance in comparison to Slawenski’s book on the same subject. In particular, the short shrift he gives Salinger’s experience as a Jew who happened to be among first Americans to enter the concentration camps, and who , due to his fluent German, was additionally given the task of debriefing camp personnel, is a particularly grievous gap. Salinger’s subsequent nervous breakdown is covered in the film without the groundwork allowing us to understand why it happened. That’s Hollywood.
Salerno’s documentary has been criticized, most vocally by Maynard herself, for its cursory treatment of Salinger’s  long string of affairs with very young women. Having read Maynard’s memoir, the contrasts between the anger and angst-infused recollections of her book and her  affable persona in the film are striking. To give one example: in the film, she giggles as she remembers how they breakfasted, according to his strict views on health, on barely defrosted peas. Eccentric, yes, but also mildly charming. In the book, however, the story is a little different: She tells how  he was  always very controlling and dictatorial about  exactly what, and how much,  they ate. When one evening they consumed what he deemed too much, he tutored her in the art of self-induced vomiting. Yes, the fifty-three-year-old J.D. Salinger coached a very appearance conscious teen in bulimia! This is  sinister stuff; and, predictably, given the basically respectful tenor of the film,  it does not make Salerno’s cut.
In the end, Shane Salerno and J.D. Salinger make for an exceedingly odd couple. While Salinger, whatever his other faults, always had an exquisite ear, Salerno is fatally tone deaf.  The film has been widely criticized for its “America’s Most Wanted” style reenactment segments, but also, not incidentally, for it’s (mis)use of music. The climactic, ear-splitting Thus Spake Zarathustra-style orchestration  that overlays the exclusive list of books to be published is laughable, and ends up undermining the urgency of anything we learn. Things actually go downhill from there.  In the film’s final sequence, we are informed in breathless text (there’s no other way to describe it), that after years of intermittent filming in Cornish, the filmmakers received a phone call asking them to be at a particular corner at such-a-such a time. Very cloak and dagger. Once again the tabloid headline: “Exclusive: Last Known Footage of J.D. Salinger.” We then see an exceedingly frail J.D. Salinger make his way to a massive SUV. Taking his seat,  he grimaces manically (a smile?) through the window. He is then driven away by an oddly radiant and youthful redhead.Over this sequence plays jubilant music strongly reminiscent of the instrumental section in Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill. Salerno’s message is clear: a moment of joyful reconciliation! At last!
To what is Salinger’s supposedly  reconciling himself? Salerno himself and/or the Weinstein Company? The droves of seekers who have showed up at his doorstep over the years? Perhaps something as grand as the culture at large; Salinger certainly suggests as much. E.L. Doctorow posits early on that becoming a recluse was simply a brilliant PR move on Salinger’s part, and various pilgrims tell their stories of how Salinger was not, in reality, all that unapproachable, even striking some as solicitous about their welfare.  
In spite of a certain narrative momentum to this understanding (He liked us! He really liked us!) unfortunately it makes precisely zero sense. Salinger’s decision to withdraw his work from the marketplace, in possession of a large and receptive reading public as well as an accommodating, remunerative publishers, even as he continued to produce novel after novel, remains utterly unprecedented. The SUV scene is simply another perplexing turn in an enormous mystery, the final maneuver of a crafty counterintelligence officer who never called off his war with the world. On the other hand,  it  does seem promising that several of the upcoming  books deal directly  with his war experience. Maybe a 50 year yoga retreat (another work is reputed to be a Vedanta religious manual) will turn out to be just what the doctor ordered. I for one am keeping the faith--a bit longer.
*Addendum: Following the enormously negative reaction to this film's original release, it was re-edited. As a result, the film you see on Netflix or PBS may be slightly different regarding music cues, etc. And it's apparently been given a new title.

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