Movie Reviews - 2013 postsTuesday October 08, 2013
Movie Review: Gravity (2013)
Is “Gravity” the new Hollywood spectacle?
The original kind, created in the wake of television, tended to be overlong, wide-screen, supersaturated Biblical epics. Hollywood studios were trying to give you an experience you couldn’t get in your home. They were trying to get you out of your home and away from your TV set. This type of spectacle was eventually replaced by epic musicals (“Sound of Music,” etc.), which were replaced by director-driven films with sex and/or violence (“Bonnie and Clyde,” etc.), which were replaced by the ascendance of B-movie fodder with A-movie production values (“Star Wars,” etc.). We’re still in this last period, more or less, but Hollywood studios are still looking to give you something you can’t get in your home. They’re trying to entertain you away from your home entertainment system.
“Gravity” is short: 90 minutes. It’s a novella of a movie. It promises, not a cast of thousands, but a cast of two. For much of the movie, in fact, it’s just one. It’s “Castaway” in space.
But it’s still a kind of experience, particularly with IMAX and 3-D, that you can’t get in your home. It’s an event.
But how’s the story?
In space, no one can hear things explode
“Gravity” opens beautifully. We see the Earth, boom, in front of us, huge, and surrounded by the silence of space. Then writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”; “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) holds on it. And holds on it. Then, slowly, people and voices come into view. They rotate into view.
It’s the five-person crew of the Explorer, a U.S. ship in orbit. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer tethered to the Explorer, is attempting to fix a motherboard outside the ship. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), astronaut, an old space hand, jets about, filling the vast silence of space with his cynical, amused charm. “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” he jokes. He tells well-worn or half-finished stories about his wife leaving him, about New Orleans in the 1980s, about how he’s going to come up short of breaking the space-walk record set by Anatole Somethingorother. He’s a George Clooney character: He knows his business, he knows the score, he’s been broken in some way but charm seeps through the cracks.
For the moment, Ryan is resisting that charm. She lives up her family name. She’s lost in her work.
Not for long, though. The Russians have destroyed one of their satellites, and this has destroyed others, setting off a chain reaction of orbiting destruction, with the Explorer directly in its path. This storm of debris arrives like a silent meteor shower, and Stone is torn from the Explorer and goes rocketing and flipping through space. Earlier, when asked what she likes about being up there, she replied, “The silence.” Here, she finds out how frightening that silence can be. Here, she’s grateful when she finally hears a human voice, Matt’s, in her radio transmitter. He urges calm. He tells her what to do so he can find her. Then he brings her back to the ship.
But the Explorer is no longer a ship, simply more space debris, and the rest of the crew are dead. There’s no radio contact with Houston. They’re alone up there. But Matt has a plan.
See that light over there? That’s a Soyuz space station. They’re going to head over there, Ryan tethered to Matt, Stone to Kowalski, and take one of its capsules back to Earth. But beware the orbiting space debris. By his calculations it will return in 90 minutes.
There are other things to worry about, too. They arrive just as she’s running out of oxygen and he’s running out of jet fuel. (Why does he not run out of oxygen? Isn’t he the one doing all the talking?) Worse, Soyuz is damaged, they bounce off it, and Ryan almost goes flying off into the void, forever, but her feet get tangled in the cords of a deployed parachute. Matt is less lucky. He sees that she won’t make it unless he lets go. So he lets go.
And then there was one.
The roller coaster
Other movies come to mind watching this one. “Alien,” obviously. (Terror in space, female survivor.) “Barbarella,” oddly. (A woman removing her spacesuit in zero gravity.) “Castaway,” as above.
But the dominating influence is Steven Spielberg. “Gravity” is a roller-coaster ride with smarts and art and, well, gravity, but it’s still a roller coaster ride. It’s still skin-of-the-teeth stuff. For 90 percent of the movie, Ryan is staying just one small step (rather than one giant leap) ahead of destruction, until the final, beautiful shots when her capsule splashes to earth, she crawls to shore, and pulls herself up on the land. You almost feel the weight of gravity holding her in place then. It’s a great shot. “Gravity” begins well and ends well, and the middle is a ride. But it’s just a ride.
Within this ride, yes, Cuarón and company do some good work. We get a bit of background. We find out Ryan lost a child, a girl, 4 years old, and when she died much of Ryan’s reason for living died with her. She shut herself off. She almost does that here. In Soyuz, before traveling to the Chinese space station, Tien Gong, she powers down the systems, turns off the air, gives up. She’s ready to die. She’s ready to join her daughter.
Then a knock on the door.
No joke. At first I thought it was one of the cosmonauts—the face looked gigantic and grotesque—but it’s actually Matt, the sexiest man alive, who has miraculously survived. He enters the spacecraft and fills it with his energy. Did you find the vodka? he asks. Well, I finally broke the spacewalk record, he says. Now let’s take this puppy home. It’s a great moment, even if it doesn’t seem reasonable—given the verisimilitude of everything else in the movie—and it isn’t. It’s a dream. A figment. Matt’s dead, she’s alone, but the moment—the dream, the vision, whatever—inspires her to try again. The whole scene is really well-done. I was happy when Matt returned (we needed something), and I was sad he turned out to be a figment, even as I realized it was the right thing to do for the story.
A helluva story to tell
So they do good things within the ride, but is it enough? Is Ryan an interesting enough character to hold the screen by herself for half the movie?
At one point, Matt, or maybe his figment, tells Ryan why she needs to keep trying: You’ll either die, he says, or you’ll have a helluva story to tell.
When you see “Gravity,” see it on an IMAX screen with 3-D. Make it an event. Because for all its spectacle, for all its effects, “Gravity” doesn’t have a helluva story to tell.
Movie Review: Una Noche (2013)
“From the tops of the trees you can see the planes coming in from Miami. Sometimes people come back to Cuba from the outside world. They return like kings: fatter, happier, trusting. They lose that nervous desperation.”
-- Lila (Anailín del la Rúa de la Torre) in writer-director Lucy Mulloy’s “Una Noche.”
Filmed in cinéma véritée fashion, “Una Noche” is a movie about that nervous desperation. It’s about three young people in Havana bouncing here and there, scrimping this and that. Do they have a plan? We assume so. We’ve seen the movie poster. We know what the movie’s about, more or less. But the plan has no center.
It’s a subtle film. Some friends of Elio (Javier Núnez Florían) pick on a gay guy and his face retreats. Is he gay? (Yes.) It’s an ironic film. Raul (Dariel Arrechaga) prostitutes himself to get the money to get the drugs to help out his prostitute mother, who has AIDS. It’s an evocative film. One of the characters mentions you can smell the tourists coming. “They use a soap we can’t get here.”
But mostly it’s about 90 miles.
That’s the distance from Cuba to Miami, from poverty to wealth, from communism to capitalism. It’s the distance to a different kind of desperation.
Lila and Elio are twins—she’s eight minutes older—who have always communicated well, who can almost finish each other’s thoughts. Lately, though, Elio’s grown distant, and Lila follows him around to find out why. She follows their father, too, a military man, and discovers he’s having an affair. She’s teased by other girls for the hair on her arms, and wonders whether she should pluck her eyebrows. She holds off the boys but dreams of first kisses. Despite all this, we don’t really get to know her, and what we do know isn’t that interesting. She’s most interesting in voiceover. All of them are.
We don’t really get to know Elio, either. Lila thinks he has a girl but he has a boy. Except the boy, Raul, doesn’t know it. Of the three, Elio is the most serious. He’s not following after other people’s drams, as Lila, nor sabotaging his own, as Raul, but moving forward. He’s doing it all for love.
That’s an answer to this question: What kind of desperation makes someone get on a small raft and paddle 90 miles across shark-infested waters? It’s not just the beacon on the other side. You need a push.
Raul is pushed by a mistake. There are two classes of people in Havana, citizens and tourists, and he’s seen talking to a tourist, and that tourist—or her father?—winds up in the hospital, so Raul is suspected since no one else is. “In Havana,” Lila says in voiceover, “only a fool runs from the police.” Raul is that fool. And that’s his final push. Elio is then pushed—or pulled—by his love for Raul. Lila discovers their plans and can’t abide Havana without her brother. That’s how all three wind up on this small raft, paddling.
The young and the pretty
One hopes, away from the bustle of the city, that things will calm down and the three will get serious. Instead, on the small raft, their stupidity has nowhere to hide. Raul complains about paddling. He asks for a backrub from Lila, flirts with Lila, tries to kiss Lila. Elio kisses Raul. They fight. Then the shark comes. By then, I’d lost interest. The characters were too stupid, too spoiled, to care about.
I gained some sympathy back again when Lila and Raul finally float, exhausted, to land, and are greeted by white jet skiers. For a second, we think: Miami. But wait, doesn’t the blonde-haired girl look familiar? Isn’t she the one Raul was talking to earlier? Indeed. One of the jet skiers, a tourist boy, leans forward and says, “Are you trying to get to Miami?” and flashes a big grin to his friends. It’s a joke to them, these boat people, trying to get to Miami but winding back in Havana. It’s a kind of horror for us. Elio doesn’t make it.
“Una Noche” is at its best when it gives us flashes of the hectic life in Havana, a city that time forgot, where 1950s cars coexist with knockoff smartphones. (They’ve improved the catcalls anyway. One guy, to a hot girl passing: “I’ll wash, iron and cook for you daily!”) It’s a trapped city and these three try to break free of it. They’re young and pretty, and, like the young and pretty everywhere, just not that interesting.
Movie Review: Rush (2013)
Everyone’s driven by something.
That’s the movie’s tagline. Of course, being a movie, it’s more interested in the “driven” than the “something,” but at least it makes feints toward the latter. It’s written by Peter Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, the team who gave us “Frost/Nixon,” so it should aspire to some kind of meaning. It shouldn’t just be zoom-zoom.
And it’s not. It’s zoom-zoom but it’s also a vague character study in the Peter Morgan mould. Is that enough?
Peter Morgan is big on his dichotomies, isn’t he? He’s particularly big on historical dichotomies of the past 40 years. Thus Idi Amin and Dr. Nicholas Garrigan in “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth in “The Queen” (2006), David Frost and Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” (2008), and Don Revie and Brian Clough in “The Damned United” (2009). Now, in “Rush,” we get the epic battle between 1970s-era Formula-One race-car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl).
Ready? Hunt is tall, blond, a sex machine and a party animal. Lauda is short, mousy, with rat-like buck teeth. He’s blunt and friendless while Hunt is friends with everyone. Hunt takes risks, Lauda less so. Lauda is all about calculations and odds, while Hunt is like Han Solo: Don’t tell him the odds! He’s balls out. Lauda keeps his balls in, thank you.
At the start, we get voiceovers from both men about why men in general race cars around tracks: They’re rebels, dreamers, people desperate to make a mark. “I don’t know why it became such a big thing,” Lauda says about his rivalry with Hunt. “We’re just driven.”
These voiceovers occur on August 1, 1976, a rain day full of portent. At which point we flash back six years earlier. Hunt is walking, almost strutting, into a hospital with bloody nose and bare feet. In voiceover, he asks us, as he flirts with one of the nurses, (Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones”), why women like racecar drivers.
Uhhh... Cuz you look like Thor?
“It’s our closeness to death,” he answers.
At this point Hunt is only a Formula Three driver. But in the first race we see, he butts heads, and cars, with Lauda. Hunt shows up late, having partied all night, while Lauda shows up early to study the race track. He’s a student and a businessman. He’s careful. Too careful. At a particular turn, he doesn’t take the risk, Hunt does, Hunt wins. Thus begins the rivalry.
This rivalry takes them to the top: Lauda drives for Team Ferrari, Hunt for Team McLaren, in Formula One racing. Along the way, Hunt settles down, kinda, with supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde, who looks great as a ‘70s blonde), while Lauda meets cute with a German girl, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), as both flee a party where neither wants to be. He was driven there, she’s driving. He pauses to tell her everything wrong with her car. She scoffs. Cut to: the car smoking by the side of the road. OK, so we see that coming. Then it becomes a riff on the hitchhiking scene from “It Happened One Night.” He tries, gets nowhere. She tries, in her party dress, and a car comes screeching to a halt. Except, nice bit here, the two men, rowdy Italians, bypass her to get to Lauda, the Formula One racecar driver for Ferrari! They’re beside themselves. They even let him drive their car. When Marlene mocks his careful driving, he takes it to another level. All in all, a nice scene.
The focus of the film is the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt in 1976. Lauda, the reigning world champion, starts out strong, winning race after race. Then Hunt begins to win. Will he catch up? That takes us to the day of portent, in rainy Nurburg, West Germany, the 10th race of the 16-race season. Lauda, who measures the odds, who knows that with every race he has a 20 percent chance of dying, and that the rain is increasing those odds, suggests cancelation. The others vote to race. He’s the one who pays. His car spins out, erupts in flames, and he suffers smoke inhalation damage and lifelong scars on his face. He’s done but Hunt continues.
But Lauda isn’t done. Less than two months later, he’s back, and the rivalry plays out on the final race of the season.
On another rainy day, Lauda, mid-race, bows out, deciding it’s not worth it. He sees the face of Marlene, whom he’s married, and whom he told on their honeymoon, “Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Suddenly, you have something to lose.” That’s what appears to happen here. He sees his wife’s face, he quits. Meanwhile, Hunt, with a last-minute sprint, finishes third in the race, which gives him just enough points to beat Lauda for the world championship. Now he’s World Champion.
At which point we get one of the odder things I’ve seen in a movie.
Most movie montages are there to set up the third act, a la “Rocky,” but once Hunt wins we get a kind of “Will Success Spoil James Hunt?” montage: partying, sex, blow, and TV commercials. I thought: “Wait, isn’t the movie nearly over?” It is. This montage sets up the epilogue. And the epilogue upsets the rest of the story.
In an airplane hangar, Hunt runs into Lauda, who’s working on his plane, and who waxes poetic about flying. He seems like he’s retired from racing and encourages Hunt to try flying. Then he encourages Hunt back on the track. But Hunt is too busy being a celebrity. They have a serious moment here. Hunt says he feels bad about his part in making Niki race on August 1, 1976. Lauda acknowledges it, in his blunt manner, but adds, “You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.” I.e., Because Hunt kept winning races, Lauda had to come back from his horrific accident and disfigurement.
And he’s still racing. That’s the thing. Lauda is back on the track and he wants Hunt there, too. He talks about how far both of them have come, in part because of their rivalry, and he wants that rivalry to continue. But Hunt is noncommittal. In an afterword, we’re told he stops racing to become a TV commentator while Lauda wins back the world championship in 1977 and again in 1984. You think, “Wow! That’s a great story. How come we didn’t get more of that story?” In this way, “Rush” is similar to Morgan’s “Damned United.” There, in an afterword, we’re told that Brian Clough, the careful coach, went on to huge success, but the movie focuses on his rivalry with Don Revie, the balls-out coach, because apparently that’s what Peter Morgan likes to focus on. Apparently he thinks such rivalries and dichotomies are more dramatic. Maybe they are. Even so. Something’s missing here. And it’s “something.”
Everyone’s driven by something. It’s a movie, yes, so we get the “driven” more than the “something.” Normally that would be fine. But since the “something” goes away for one man and not the other, that’s the key. But we don’t get it.
Look, “Rush” is a good movie. It’s fun and semi-serious. The acting is good, the production values high. It’s just missing something.
Movie Review: Short Term 12 (2013)
“Short Term 12,” written and directed by Destin Cretton, and based on his 2008 short film of the same name, not to mention his own time working at a foster-care facility, feels natural. The lighting is natural (read: washed out), the dialogue is natural (read: mumbled), the acting is natural (no glam). It’s like a Dogme 95 film without the pretension.
It’s about trouble teens who are helped by troubled staff who aren’t much older than they are. It’s the children leading the children. When do we see anyone over 30 in this thing? I guess when Dr. Hendler (Nora Walters) tells Grace (Brie Larson) she’s pregnant, but she’s only in it for like 15 seconds. I guess when the director of the foster-care facility, Jack (Frantz Turner), appears, but that’s not often. Mostly we just get the kids. It’s almost like a Peanuts cartoon in this regard.
It’s tough to pin down why it’s so good. It might have something to do with its ease and lack of pretension and the feeling it has for its characters. These characters move in a dramatic arc but there’s a cyclicality to the movie, too. Issues are resolved but we wind up back where we started.
The shark and the octopus
We start with storytelling. “There is no way not to tell this right,” says Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), bearded, amused, laid back. “It’s a storyteller’s wet dream.”
Various staff members at Short Term 12 are standing outside and taking a smoke break and welcoming the newest staff member, Nate (Rami Malek of “The Pacific”), when Mason decides to tell his well-worn story. It’s about a big kid named Wesley who bolted on Mason’s first day on the job. He left the premises and got on a bus, and Mason, who was dealing with stomach issues, followed. But the pressure in his stomach grew worse and when he finally confronted Wesley it all flowed south. That’s the punchline. They’re all laughing about it when one of the kids, Sammy (Alex Calloway), redhaired, pale and skinny, bolts from the place and they have to chase him down. That’s Sammy’s thing, by the way: making repeated and fruitless feints at escape.
All the kids have a thing. Luis (Kevin Hernandez) tends to tease Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who tends to burn with quiet rage, while Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the new girl, is flip, closed-off, doesn’t give a fuck. It’s the job of the staff, Grace particularly, to open them up. Yet at the end of the day, in the quiet evenings she shares with Mason, Grace herself is closed off. Traditional gender roles here are reversed: he cooks; she instigates sex. She’s closed off, a mystery, while he wants her to talk about how she’s feeling.
At the moment, she’s feeling pregnant. That’s one of the things she won’t tell him. There’s other stuff: past abuse issues. She cut herself for a while. Jayden cuts herself, too, and Grace suspects Jayden is also abused. Or neglected? Her father is supposed to pick her up for her birthday and doesn’t, and Jayden cuts herself, and ...
To be honest, writing about it lessens it. There’s a subtlety to it. The revelations are just suddenly there, as if they’ve always been there, and are accepted with a barely discernible nod by the other characters. There are dramatic moments and histrionics, sure, but revelations tend to be made quietly and obliquely. One of the best such moments is a short story Jayden writes and reads to Grace. It’s about the friendship between a shark and an octopus. I won’t spoil it.
In life there are those who close us off and those who open us up, and “Short Term 12” is about a group of people who do the latter for a living; then they go home and do it with each other. You could argue that that’s the big battle: to remain open, and open others, in a world that tends to close us off.
That’s how the movie proceeds until we wind up back where we started: with a smoke break and storytelling and Sammy making a break for it.
Not exactly “Free to Be, You and Me”
I didn’t think I’d like “Short Term 12.” The trailer has a ’70s vibe. Not a ’70s film vibe, which would be great, but a living-through-the-‘70s-as-a-kid vibe, and dealing with the various “Free to Be, You and Me” group activities and unstructured environments that we were placed in. I hated them. They were supposed to be free and edgy and interesting but they were generally dull and chaotic. Sometimes they seemed a step above “Lord of the Flies.” With me as Piggy. But the movie’s not that.
“Short Term 12” is sort of like Grace herself. It sits next to you and quietly works on you without seeming to. After a while, you just find yourself opening up to it.
Movie Review: Salinger (2013)
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I saw it (Seven Gables theater) and what the lousy drive over was like (lousy), and how I was occupied and all before the show (buying books at Cinema Books), and all that Pauline Kael kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, you would probably have about two hemorrhages apiece if I kept this up. You’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but you’re also sensible as hell. So what you really want to know is this: Is the movie any good?
Not really. If I were in an uncharitable mood I would say “Salinger” is a documentary made by phonies.
That’s too easy, though. “Phony” is almost a worthless word now, thanks to Salinger, and it’s certainly worthless in anything related to Salinger. It’s the “groovy” of Salingerologists.
Besides, it’s not quite right. Shane Salerno’s “Salinger” is too clichéd. That’s better. It’s tabloid. It’s begins OK and ends awful. It doesn’t push the conversation in the direction it seems to be going, it just steeps itself in the evidence. The tabloid mentality never asks what things mean. It just wants dirt, and gets it, and presents it to us, saying, “Look at this. Isn’t it awful?”
Yes. It’s awful.
‘Salinger’: An Introduction
I should add: I’m not a Salingerologist myself but I am familiar with his works. I’ve read the four books countless times and “Hapworth 16, 1924” twice. I spent the summer after college back in the university library looking up and reading the stories he’d published before “Nine Stories”: “The Young Folks,” and “The Varioni Bros.” and the like. I wish I’d done this with a purpose, such as writing about Salinger, but it was more out of haplessness. Salinger was practically the only writer I could read that summer so I had to seek out more of him. Oh. I’m also the guy who outed “Hapworth” when it was about to become a book. I ruined that for everyone. Apologies.
Even so, even with this CV, the doc tells me a lot about the life of J.D. Salinger I didn’t know.
I didn’t know much about his prep school and military school days, and I didn’t know about his weekly poker playing with fellow writers like A.E. Hotchner, and I didn’t know he married a German woman, possibly with Nazi party affiliations, shortly after the war. These things were news.
The doc implies that William Shawn, the editor in chief at The New Yorker, to whom “Franny and Zooey” was dedicated, didn’t start working directly with Salinger until the other New Yorker editors were ready to reject “Zooey” in 1957. Which means Shawn, to whom I’ve given much credit in helping Salinger become Salinger, actually only helped with Salinger’s three most self-indulgent works: “Zooey”; “Seymour: An Introduction”; and “Hapworth 16, 1924.” No wonder he just gets the metaphoric lima bean.
But is that right? We get one mention of it and no corroboration, and the doc doesn’t seem to recognize its significance. Because it means when it comes to Salinger: a) Shawn was late to the party, and b) the other New Yorker editors were ready to reject the work of the most famous, most buzzed-about writer in the country on principle. Because it wasn’t up to their standards.
The doc keeps doing this. It keeps missing opportunities.
The Bulls-Eye Kid
We get footage, for example, of what is assumed to be Daytona Beach, Fla., circa 1948, and people dancing happily on the beach. Then the footage slows ominously to invoke the disconnect that Salinger, returning from World War II, had with those who remained in the states. I thought: a good time to quote from “The Stranger,” a Dec. 1945 Colliers story in which the main character, Babe, returns from war to tell the girlfriend of an army buddy, Vincent Caulfield, how Vince died. As Babe watches an old man walking his dog on the New York streets, Salinger writes:
Babe figured that during the whole of the Bulge, the guy had walked that dog on this street every day. He couldn’t believe it. He could believe it, but it was still impossible.
But “Salinger” doesn’t go into the early works. It doesn’t try to connect the early works to the later works. It hardly goes into the writing at all. So allow me.
In “The Varioni Bros.” (Saturday Evening Post, 1943), the more poetic half of a songwriting duo dies tragically young—prefiguring Seymour Glass. In “A Boy in France” (Saturday Evening Post, 1945), Mattie’s letter to Babe allows him to fall “crumbly, bent-leggedly, asleep”—prefiguring “For Esme With Love and Squalor.”
The doc implies that in the early 1940s The New Yorker wanted O Henry-type stories, alley-oop-type stories, which he was above. Except he wasn’t. He wrote them. “Hang of It” (Colliers, 1941) is exactly that. It’s about a screw-up before World War I whose mean drill sergeant bellows at him, “Aincha got no brains?!” But in the end we find out that the narrator is actually the screw-up, who’s now a colonel, and forever indebted to his loveable old drill sergeant. Alley oop.
The doc implies that the war changed Salinger but not the way it changed his writing, which is what really matters. Think of the sentimentality of “Hang of It,” and then look at these lines from “The Stranger”:
Your mind, your soldier’s mind, wanted accuracy above all else. So far as details went, you wanted to be the bulls-eye kid: Don’t let any civilians leave you, when the story’s over, with any uncomfortable lies.
“Hang of It” is Hollywood sentimentality, “The Stranger” is devoid of it. That’s what war did. It turned him into the Bulls-Eye Kid.
Or did it? Babe has a younger sister, Mattie, prefiguring Phoebe, and Esme, and Franny, and this is how the story ends, with Mattie jumping:
With her feet together she made the little jump from the curb to the street surface, then back again. Why was it such a beautiful thing to see?
Is this sentimentality? A lie? If it is, it winds its way through all of Salinger’s works. His screwed-up characters are forever trapped between an older, male wisdom that is dead, and a younger, female innocence that will inevitably grow up; and even as they aspire toward the former, they soothe themselves with the latter.
It’s also evident in Salinger’s early work. “The Last Day of the Last Furlough” was published in The Saturday Evening Post in July 1944, so a few months before the Battle of the Bulge, and it ends this way. Babe is thinking about Mattie again. He’s thinking of what advice to give her:
It’s a quick business, being a kid. ... But my main point, Mattie ... kind of live up to the best that’s in you. ... If you can’t be smart and a swell girl, too, then I don’t want to see you grow up. [Emphasis mine]
Surely that would have meaning in the doc. Surely you could get some critic or writer to talk about it on camera. Surely writer-director Shane Salerno knows about it.
But not a peep. Just the dirt.
Girls girls girls
Here’s the dirt: Salinger liked young girls (14-21). He often abandoned them as they reached maturity. He didn’t want to see them grow up.
What questions, as a documentarian, might you derive from those facts? Here are some obvious ones:
- Would Salinger have been so fixated on young girls if he hadn’t lost Oona O’Neill (to Charlie Chaplin of all people) when he was 21-23 and she was 16-18? Were all of these other girls attempts to make up for Oona? Was she the Annabel to his Humbert?
- Would he have been so fixated without World War II? Was he, like his characters, trying to surround himself with innocence as a way to overcome horror?
- Some combination of 1) and 2)?
- Or did he come into this world so fixated?
Instead, the dirt. The same sad story, over and over.
There’s Sylvia Welter, German, whom Salinger meets during the mop-up campaign, but their marriage is annulled quickly after they arrive in the states. The doc implies two things about her: 1) that she was young (21 when they married?); and 2) that she had Nazi party affiliations. But these two things don’t sit well together. If she was 21 in 1945 then she was 15 when the war began and 9 when Hitler came to power. Even if she was a member of the Nazi party, what does that mean?
There’s Jean Miller, whom Salinger meets on the beach in Florida in the 1940s, and who may have been the inspiration for Muriel in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” They begin a relationship, platonic, for years, until she’s at college and makes her move. They have a fling. But then she says something, laughs at something, and he freezes and shuts her out. This is a common occurrence for all of Salinger’s friends: something is said or done, resulting in anger, resulting in the end of the friendship. It happened to A.E. Hotchner, too.
There’s his next first wife, Claire Douglas, who may have been the inspiration for Franny, and who was, according to one family friend, a nonentity to Salinger after the birth of their two children, Margaret and Matthew.
Then there’s Joyce Maynard. There’s way too much of Joyce Maynard.
In April 1972, Maynard wrote a first-person New York Times Magazine cover story, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” and the Times put her on the cover. She’s cute. She’s got big eyes, bangs, is grabbing her shoe like a little girl, and she’s looking at the camera with an expression that conveys both a “Who me?” vibe and a “Yes, me!” vibe. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me, that look, that vibe, and it never goes away. Maynard never goes away. She keeps talking. Apparently Salinger wrote her a letter after the Times piece came out, and she visited him in Cornish, N.H., and stayed, and lived with him, and worked with him, and watched old movies with him (“Lost Horizon,” about a place where people don’t grow old), until that day on the beach when he told her, whew, he didn’t want any more kids, and she told him well she did, and so he said good-bye right then and there. Gave her 50 bucks, told her to take a cab to the airport, bye. Like that. And she hasn’t gotten over it.
The irony? Maynard may have been the perfect choice for Salinger. She really is the girl who never grew up. She keeps living that moment, those moments, and Salerno lets her. Is he letting her hang herself? I don’t know. But I got so bored at this point in the doc. I kept thinking, “We get it.” I kept asking, “But what does it mean?”
But the tabloid mind doesn’t care about that.
Books books books
One of my favorite things in documentaries about artists or craftsman is hearing from other artists or craftsmen in the same field: directors on directors, comedians on comedians, writers on writers. “Salinger” doesn’t give us much of this. We get a bit from A.E. Hotchner and his personal relationship with Salinger; we get a little of E.L. Doctorow (who seems wary), a little of Gore Vidal (who trots out his well-worn lines), and that’s about it. Did the others have nothing to say? Did Salerno not seek them out? The doc has a Hollywood attitude about writers: Who needs them when we can hear from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen and Ed Norton? You know: the stars.
We keep getting documentary clichés. After the same sad story—how Salinger abandoned Hotchner or Maynard—Salerno gives us the same sad shot: the friend or lover, head bowed, silent and bereft. He keeps giving us a stage dramatization of Salinger, a small figure in the foreground, with cigarette going, typing away, while in the background huge images of violent war footage, indicating his state of mind, play out. Salerno does this about a million times.
The other great Salinger mystery, besides the mystery of the girls, is the mystery of his reclusiveness. Salinger abandoned New York for New Hampshire in the early 1950s, then he abandoned publishing altogether in 1965, but the doc makes it clear he wasn’t a recluse in the Howard Hughes sense. He had friends. He went outside. He visited folks in Cornish and elsewhere. If anything, the privacy he craved was less for himself than for his characters. He didn’t want the world to get at them so he didn’t let it happen. He didn’t publish.
But he kept writing.
Now those works will get out. According to “Salinger,” we’ll see the following starting in 2015:
- “A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary,” a novella, most likely based on his own work during World War II.
- “A World War II Love Story,” most likely based on his marriage to Sylvia.
- “The Complete Chronicle of the Glass Family,” featuring five new stories about Seymour.
- “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans,” about Holden Caulfield.
- A religious manual about Advaita Vedanta Hinduism.
I hope it’s good stuff. I hope it sheds light. I hope it sheds more light than this doc sheds.
Because here’s the thing about a documentary on a subject this big. You want accuracy above all else. So far as details, you want to be the bulls-eye kid.
Instead we got this.
The goddamn movies. They can ruin you. I’m not kidding.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard