Salinger is the new documentary from Shane Salerno that attempts to recreate the life of novelist J.D. Salinger. That is a difficult proposal considering that Salinger wasn’t keen on others knowing his personal life, was famously reclusive, and left the public with only two novels, a dozen or so short stories, and a handful of pictures of himself. That’s it. Going into this documentary I thought, “It will be interesting to see what Salerno can accomplish with so little.” Turns out, it’s not very interesting at all.
When I call Salinger a “documentary”, I mean to use the term lightly. This is not really a documentary about J.D. Salinger it is an oral history. Salerno uses interviews from ex-wives, friends, sons of army comrades, other writers, editors, friends of editors, friends of friends, rabid fans, famous people who like The Catcher in the Rye, and on and on. You will notice that even though there are a lot of people to comment on Salinger, there lacks a central figure that might be able to provide authenticity to any of the stories. There are certain trivial points that I did not know but are interesting, such as Salinger lost his teenage girlfriend, Oona O’Neill, to Charlie Chaplin. However, when the most interesting point in a documentary is trivia, you know you got some problems. We also learn that both Billy Wilder and Elia Kazan tried desperately to turn The Catcher in the Rye into a movie. That never happened, and probably for the better. Holden Caulfield would have hated that movie. He probably would have hated this movie too.
My central issue with Salinger is that since the man himself is no longer alive to defend his action and thoughts (not that he would if he were alive) the supporting players must give their perspective on events and interpret his writings to see what was going on in that brain of his. However, these interpretations don’t seem to ever venture into areas that might actually lead to some form of understanding. For instance, Salinger clearly had a thing for teenage women, some of them, quite young. Was he a pedophile? The documentary tries to keep this topic on the up-and-up, trying to paint him as Peter Pan, a young boy at heart. I think there might be some truth to that, but it might have something to do with Charlie Chaplin. Salinger was still a teenager when he lost his younger girlfriend to the fifty-four year old Chaplin. Does this not seem like a significant moment in a young man’s life? Maybe he spent his life trying to become that older artistic genius so that he could recapture his teenager love? I know it’s sort of cliché, but a little Rosebud digging now and then doesn’t hurt.
The construct of the documentary is a kitchen-sink approach. They use everything they can, talking head interviews, artistic creation and reenactment, archive footage, the same few photos over and over again, anything and just about everything. They only thing they leave out is Salinger himself. Few writers, indeed few artists, have garnered such a feverish following with so little of catalog. To me, that would make for a much more fascinating documentary and study. Or why do people connect with The Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield the way that they do? What is it about that book that sympathizes with so many people? Of course, this is not a brainstorming session about what Salinger should be, this is a review of what Salinger is. And it is pretty bad. I hate to say it, but I just can’t resist, it just all seems so… phony.