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.