By Armond White
The Weinstein Company (formerly Miramax) really knows how to sell its product. They even sell a movie while you’re watching it which is the first problem with Shane Salerno’s Salinger. This bio-doc of the fiction writer J.D. Salinger, who became something of a recluse in the years following the phenomenal popularity of his 1951 novel Catcher in the Rye, is made in that hectoring, untrustworthy style of The Thin Blue Line (1988, directed by Errol Morris and distributed by Harvey Weinstein)Weinstein and Salerno keep shoving their Salinger celebrity mongering down our eye sockets and ear holes through gimmicky editing and loud, rising music–the most disreputable devices ever incorporated into non-fiction filmmaking. They don’t trust the author’s work to be of interest; Salinger crassly sells his fame and deliberate mystification–about his affluence family, his WWII experience on D-Day and at the Auschwitz death camp, his persistent pursuit of The New Yorker magazine’s ratification, his marriages and relations with much younger women. Putting Salinger through the celebrity meat-grinder, this is envy-based tabloid filmmaking surreally amplified like a comic-book movie. It also puts audiences through a meat-grinder.
There’s so much overkill that midway through Salinger’s two-hour-plus running time, the author’s legend is seriously undermined. Fawning celebrity-testimonies to his importance are so shallow that literary critic Mary McCarthy’s briefly mentioned critique of Salinger’s “amoeba”-like cast of characters and unvarying narcissism seems a sharper assessment than all the boisterous gossip. Salerno confuses art with success and fame with the mystery of character. (It doesn’t help to have Phillip Seymour Hoffman smirk “You’re born with the right of anonymity.” Huh?) Only writer Pheobe Hoban gets at Salinger’s class-based fear that success (through Book of the Month Club endorsement) might mean he’s not really a New Yorker intellectual but actually middlebrow. This film’s entire ungainly pretense could be subverted by the reality-check Huey Lewis got when his father assured him that huge sales and popularity guaranteed a work was mediocre. Salinger noisily distracts that ultimate career insecurity.
Since Thin Blue Line, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 (also distributed by Weinstein) and the advent of the mockumentary, contemporary non-fiction film has been warped–designed to entertain more than inform, to advocate/propagandize rather than investigate or verify fact. Salerno starts with a Newsweek photographer invading Salinger’s private retreat in New Hampshire then compounds the offense with egregious re-enactments (some incongruously shot at Los Angeles’ unmistakable Bradbury building), many from what looks like a stage play about Salinger featuring large-screen projections (of his early romance with Oona O’Neill, friends’ private photos and home movies and unsourced archive footage) that recall Trumbo, the similarly haphazard bio-doc on the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter.
Salerno’s cheap stunts show no appreciation for what stock footage hides or tells; matching repetitive references to Salinger’s post-war psychological distress to shallow mentions of his idiosyncratic writer’s habits merely indulges more celebrity fantasizing. Old Warner Bros. bio-pic montages showed Emile Zola turning out books like cans of beans stacked on a shelf but Salerno updates that trope with a millennial montage of Catcher’s reviews–blurbs fill the screen like in a movie trailer. Ludicrous, though consistent with the film’s inanity. (Its “last recorded images” of Salinger are ballyhooed as if he was Big Foot.)
If this anti-literary format becomes a standard reference on Salinger’s significance (and there’s always a good chance that Weinstein’s oversell will become a cultural standard–look at the Oscars) it would be tragic. Salerno (who wrote Avatar and Armageddon) has no strategy for conveying literary value, so he brings up Catcher’s impact on famous psychopaths John Hinckley, Mark David Chapman. This ironically contrasts the tributes from Edward Norton and Judd Apatow (Catcher gets hailed as “the greatest subversive, anti-establishment novel of all time”). A potentially important theme suggests that today’s cynical, infantilized pop culture began with Catcher in the Rye. If Norton and Apatow’s narcissistic, juvenile garbage such as Fight Club and Freaks and Geeks owe anything to Catcher in the Rye, maybe Salinger was right to hide out.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair