Salinger: Author Remains Enigmatic

One of the most mysterious and mythic American figures of this century, J.D. Salinger, the man and the author, continues to haunt our collective consciousness.

The reclusive author of the cult novel “The Catcher in the Rye” is now the subject of a documentary (and a book), which, alas, is shallow and disappointing–despite its excessive running time of 124 minutes.

Shane Salerno’s nonfictional film is designed to accompany the recently published oral history, also titled “Salinger,” by David Shields and Salerno.

For more than fifty years, the elusive author has been the subject of a relentless number of newspaper and magazine articles as well as several biographies. Yet all of these attempts have been hampered by lack of access to authentic footage and the recycling of inaccurate information.

Most individuals (including me) have read “The Catcher in the Rye” in high school, a book whose hero Holden Caulfield has left indelible impact on our imagination. For decades, fans of the book have wondered about the life of the reclusive author. It’s with these (high) expectations that I went to see the film, which world-premiered at the Toronto Film Fest, and now plays in theaters.

Overlong, self-important, and self-indulgent, Salinger relies on interviews (some by phone, others in persons) and archival footage collected for nearly a decade. Yet the end result does not feel like a labor of love.

One of the tests of a good documentary is to what extent it illuminates the life and work of its subject, motivating the viewers to seek more information about the person, perhaps even revisit his work with a fresher (more detached and mature) perspective.

Unless you knew nothing about the author, Salinger the movie fails to shed life on why the reclusive author, who died in 2010, struck such a chord with readers of several generations in the post WWII era, considering that his literary output is small (He also published short stories).

Repetitive and redundant, the docu promises more than it can possibly deliver, raising questions about the author’s private life, his attraction to young women, his several marriages, but it never addresses adequately key questions, such as the quality of his literary work and his stature as an author, then and now.

As director Salerno, who contributed to the scenario of Michael Bay’s pictures, has made some bad choices regarding technical aspects, such as the unsuitable (to say the least) musical score by Lorne Balfe.

The docu combines too many talking-heads interviews, half of which trivial or irrelevant, reenactments (actors play Salinger), and old photos. It features, among others, Martin Sheen, a New Yorker magazine editor reflecting on the greatness of Salinger. Strangely, writers of Salinger’s era, such as tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal, appear to have no strong feelings or thoughts about him.

Among the docu’s few highlights is author Joyce Maynard, who at one point was Salinger’s lover, even though Salerno didn’t ask her particularly pertinent questions.

The archival material includes a segment on Salinger during World War II. The Newsweek photographer Michael McDermott as himself reenacting the 1979 stakeout in which he shot a famous photo of Salinger outside the Windsor, Vermont post office, near Salinger’s home in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Near the end, we get a series of hunches and hypotheses, but Salinger remains an enigma to the director, as he was to the lay public and mass media in his own time.

I wonder if there are unpublished materials that await to be unveiled, sorted out, and used in a more instructive manner than we get here?

The docu will be broadcast next year on the PBS “American Masters” series. Simon & Schuster released the book on September 3.