The expression to “turn over in one’s grave” was surely created with J.D. Salinger in mind. The hyper-reclusive writer enacted a living version of the idiom for most of his life, scoffing at the notion of celebrity and turning his back on a legion of obsessed fans who hounded him incessantly about his best-known novel, The Catcher in the Rye. If there’s anything that would make Salinger turn over in his grave, Shane Salerno’s documentary Salinger would be it. The film presents a problematic view of the author—voyeuristic, highly manipulative and perverse—that’s poorly disguised under its flurry of superficially impressive formal elements.
An easy shortcut when making a documentary about a legend who left behind relatively few photos/videos is to dramatize their life. In Salinger, the method offers an easy solution and counterpoint to the two or three images of young Salinger that are shown repeatedly in the film. The writer was known to spend months at his typewriter in his bunker, but to drive the point home the film shows the Salinger stand-in sitting in the dark with sheets of paper lying all around him, and a movie screen to his right, projecting whatever images must have been going through Salinger’s head while he was writing. The film continuously returns to Salinger’s war experiences and his subsequent PTSD which, Salerno argues, must have framed and shaped the writing of Catcher. Indeed, the film’s suggestion that Catcher is actually a war novel is a provocative and interesting one, but the film doesn’t have the time nor the intelligence to substantiate its argument before moving onto its next bit of juicy gossip. Showing the Salinger stand-in typing Catcher furiously while projecting harrowing images of Dachau on the screen is more than enough, apparently, to drive the point home. The only thing this sequence proves is the director’s inability to show images of the Holocaust with the slightest modicum of respect.
Melodramatic imagery aside, the film’s largest problem, in terms of its content, is the countless number of talking heads—there are so many the film shows their name and profession each time they appear onscreen. Salerno went after the right people for the most part—notably writers from his time and his biographers—and they speak about Salinger from a place of authority, but bringing in celebrity devotees like Martin Sheen and Edward Norton is downright puzzling. To demonstrate the timeless literary importance of Catcher, could the film not have hunted down notable contemporary authors to talk about the role Catcher played in their lives? Instead of illuminating the legendary status of Salinger and the importance of his book, these soundbites underscore the contemporary mainstream appeal of a character like Holden Caulfield, who, at the time of the book’s publication, was deemed a morally dubious and contentious character. Instead of exploring why the book was banned or why Caulfield proved to be such a popular anti-hero at a time when the book was deemed shocking, the documentary settles on a scene that serves quite literally an advertisement for Catcher: hundreds of videos flash by of happy, smiling people of all ages and nationalities who are all holding a copy of Catcher. These images form a mosaic of an entire world, mesmerized by Salinger, the misanthrope. The film is determined to sell us on the idea that Catcher is a popular well-read book, a literary rite of passage, but there was never any question of its popularity. The viewer came in wanting to know more about Salinger, the unknowable writer.
The only facts the film tries hard to actualize are the scandalous personal details, his obsession with young, intelligent girls (from Oona O’Neill to Joyce Maynard), and the well-known fact that he was a bad father and husband. Yet speculating on his tendencies as a friend, lover, and family man offers little insight into Salinger as a writer, and at best, suggests Salerno has a preoccupation with the man that goes beyond his literary status, one that delves into tabloid territory—the same ground Salinger persistently refused to enter. The film explains how Salinger fell out of love with each girl the moment they betrayed him in the slightest of ways. For example, Maynard talked to a publication about her relationship with Salinger, forever burning their bridge, yet the film just glosses over this fact instead of asking why Maynard did it. Then Salerno makes the tenuous connection between Salinger’s romanticized view of these innocent, untouchable women and similarly untouchable geniuses in his Glass family stories—it’s an interesting connection, but it’s never grounded with evidence or given any worthwhile extrapolation. By this time, Salerno has moved onto something else.
It’s worth noting that none of Salinger’s family members agreed to be in the film, though that didn’t stop Salerno from including excerpts of other interviews they’ve done in the film. Salerno travelled the world to find as many so-called Salinger experts as he could, for them to spout off on the life of an elusive man. In the end, he proves little more than the idea that personal privacy should be a God-given right.