The documentary Salinger shares a sort of discovery narrative with last year’s Oscar-winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. But the film it reminds me of most is Sofia Coppola’s pop culture commentary, The Bling Ring. Just like the five kids who roamed the LA Hills stealing items from their favourite celebrities’ homes – in the hope of owning part of their idols’ lives, but also desperate to get close to the people they admire rather than the items themselves – Salinger is a film that dwells on society’s obsession with celebrity. The only real difference between the film made by Sofia Coppola and the one made by Shane Salerno (who boasts the Samuel L Jackson remake of Shaft, and Armageddon amongst his writing credits) is that Coppola observed her subjects from a careful distance, trying to reveal something about the way in which we fan-gaze and experience vicariously, while Salerno simply buys into it wholesale.
Salinger opens with a member of the paparazzi recounting a stakeout that resulted in a rare photograph of JD Salinger collecting his mail on one of his scarce public ‘outings’. After this story of triumph, we hear a story of woe from an avid Salinger fan. Painting Salinger as a cranky and ungrateful man, the film begins its campaign for celebrity culture by emphasising the great distance our unnamed fan travelled for ‘only a few minutes’ of Salinger’s time. The fan tells how disappointed he felt after journeying some four-hundred-and-fifty miles across country, leaving his wife and job in the vain hope of being permitted a heart-to-heart with the acclaimed author at his reclusive home. Surely not unreasonable – or at least that’s what the documentary would have you think.
It’s an issue not dealt with in enough depth at all, and the film absolves the fans of their own issues (and their likely need for doctors rather than authors) by vilifying Salinger for his refusal to participate in celebrity culture. If you are talented and become famous as a result, the assumption appears to be that you are responsible to your fan base. It’s almost as though the film is outraged at the very idea of Salinger’s un-American desire to withdraw from it all, suggesting somewhat forcefully that he – not the paparazzi and certainly not his poor devoted fans – was the one we ought to consider ‘crazy’.
Adding to the case against Salinger is the three people who used copies of Catcher in the Rye, either at their crime scenes or later as a part of their legal defence, when prosecuted in high-profile murder cases. Presumably if it had only been the one instance it wouldn’t be cause for alarm, but three strikes (out of literally millions) means we have to take note and – according to the talking head – some level of responsibility. There’s also a strong thread connecting the supposed mental health issues – depression, isolation and post-war traumatic stress syndrome – Salinger experienced with the mental health issues of the three individuals who went on to commit murders after reading and ‘understanding’ Holden Caulfield.
Beyond its disturbing aspersions cast on mental illness, the film tells a story that is inherently flawed by the absence of its own key player. Certainly this isn’t the first time someone has dared tell a story where someone is not physically able to represent themselves onscreen; indeed, any number of ancient history or pre-history documentaries do so as a matter of course, as well as countless posthumous documentaries and biopics on great public icons (such as Salinger). What’s different about this documentary, however, is the lack of inclusion of anything even close to Salinger’s own voice, including the most obvious – his literary one.
We are told throughout the film that Salinger believed his audience should know him (and all authors for that matter) through their work alone. So why didn’t this documentary include passages from his writing alongside literary criticism, interpretation and an analysis of his body of work? Instead of interviewing Salinger scholars, we hear from Salinger biographers; instead of hearing from professors who teach his work, we hear from actors who have read his work. At every turn this film misses the opportunity to give its audience any understanding of its subject.
The film also swallows its own hype, trying to create excitement over its own ‘insights’. Before showing footage of Salinger on VE Day, for example, we read the following words onscreen: ‘This is the only footage of JD Salinger at war. It has never been seen before.’ The words themselves linger at least as long as the footage itself, which rare though it might be, neither elucidates nor reveals a thing we didn’t already know about JD Salinger. I can hardly imagine an auditorium of literary types exclaiming, ‘Finally, evidence that he went to war!’
Another curiosity relates to style – and the use of backdrops for the incessant and often inane talking heads who claim at least 80 per cent of the screen time. Around half the people interviewed are shown against a backdrop of New York City, which makes sense on the one hand, serving as the location for vacuity in Salinger’s work. Of course, in this way it only serves a purpose of undermining what each of these talking heads is saying by reminding us of the ‘phoneyness’. The other backdrop Salerno uses is a cinema, again suggesting illusion over realism. Either Salerno suspects his talking heads are talking crap, or he doesn’t really grasp the full significance of NYC or cinema.
The final conclusions the film appears to reach are that Salinger was a potentially crazy, definitely disturbed and later miserly old man who didn’t care about his public or his family and wanted to retreat into a fantasy world where people – that is, his characters – could actually live up to his impossible, perfect expectations. Maybe JD Salinger was persistently disappointed in the people who surrounded him. But after watching the many vapid interviews with his family and friends in this documentary, I’d suggest his retreat from their attentions is entirely understandable. Rejected at least as many times as he was published, there’s an inkling that Salinger might have been ahead of his time. If that’s true then perhaps we can look forward to a future where we eventually tire of celebrity culture and pay more attention to the talents that supposedly fuel it.