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Monday, September 9, 2013


My bullshit detector might need tuning. I admit to my shame that I let my desire for more information about the private life of one of my favorite authors overly influence my opinion of the film. It was only after a few hours of consideration, and reading other learned opinions of the documentary, that I realized what a shell game it really is.

The film does present information about Salinger's early years in a compelling light. The years before and during his service in WWII, when he was a struggling young author desperate to get a story into the New Yorker, make for a very interesting story, one that it would be nearly impossible for a film to screw up. However, since this information is readily available in many different places, that hardly justifies spending fourteen dollars plus popcorn on the documentary.

The film's depiction of Salinger unsurprisingly gets hazier in the years after the war, when Salinger moved out to the country and distanced himself from the media hype machine in New York. Nearly all of the acquaintances who are interviewed for the film predate his move to New Hampshire, and most of them had little to no contact with him from that point onward.

Even more problematic than the lack of first-hand accounts is the misplace of focus. The filmmakers and the interviewees (including famous actors, notable authors, and crazed fans)are preoccupied with the question of why anyone would avoid attention and value their privacy. Almost none of them seem to grasp the irony that they themselves are the answer to the question. Two interviewees, a fan who was trying to be an author and a journalist, describe their pilgrimages to Cornish in hushed, reverent tones, without admitting that they were being rude, selfish, obnoxious jerks, hounding a person who had made his desire to be left alone perfectly clear.

The more interesting question is not why Salinger avoided attention (which many other authors have done, from Philip Roth to Thomas Pynchon and more) but why he chose not even to publish. And then of course there is the really interesting question of why Salinger matters so much to so many people, which is only discussed in the most banal of platitudes. Amazingly, even people like Tom Wolfe and E.L. Doctorow are reduced to quickie soundbites about "the culture" and whatnot.

Perhaps because of copyright issues, little of Salinger's actual words make it onto the screen, and they are dearly missed. Too much of the film is spent trying to convince you that Salinger was Holden Caulfield, and not enough time is spent appreciating the wonder of the creation.

The only really exciting thing in the documentary is the assertion that at least five new works from Salinger are going to be published between 2015 and 2020. If that proves to be true it will be something on the order of a miracle, especially if the books are any good. The biggest reason to be excited for these new publications is that it will allow Salinger's fans to get back to what really mattered to him and matters to them, the words on the page.

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