'Salinger', a reiteration

Second take
Last Updated 14 September 2013, 14:19 IST

The new film on J D Salinger (called simply Salinger) not only disappoints, but also infuriates. You don’t have to be a Salinger fan to feel bored and annoyed by the film.

Under the guise of being an exhaustively researched and many years in the making, the biography rips into the life of a man who wanted, more than anything else, to be left alone. It tells what little there is left to tell — the crumbs leftover by earlier biographers.

So, even at the end, the mystery of Salinger is not solved for us. (Luckily for us, he continues to remain unknowable). With Salinger not here to protest, and some time having passed since his death, the filmmakers must have had an easier time getting hold of Salinger’s letters and papers, and getting people who knew the author to talk on the film.

The size and heft of these revelations, alas, are mostly garish and not very illuminating. The single jackpot revelation saved for the climax — that there are new novels and stories waiting to be published — was already outed weeks before the film’s release. Salinger’s family refused to talk, and for no reason anyone can fathom, we hear Hollywood actors talk about what The Catcher in the Rye meant to them.

Who cares what Danny DeVito, John Cusack, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Norton and Martin Sheen have to say about Salinger?

The film begins with a Discovery Channel-style dramatisation of that moment when a photographer sneakily took a picture of the elusive, unphotographable Salinger and exclaimed: “I got him! I got Salinger!” Really? How much more literal can you get? Managing to get a clandestine photograph of the author can reveal what exactly about him? No one had seen what Salinger looked like in decades, and that photo exposed how he had aged but little else.

In this biography, an actor stands in for Salinger, sitting on an empty stage with a typewriter. The movie uses this devise to dramatise some parts of S’s life, because it is full of talking heads otherwise. E L Doctorow says unfairly that Salinger’s disappearing act ensured he would stay constantly in the public eye. John Guare implies, rather disappointingly, given his own fine work, that there must be something disturbing about Catcher (and thereby its author) since not one but three assassins claimed to have been influenced by it. Gore Vidal and Tom Wolfe, both usually surprising and sharp, disappoint too.

In fact, none of the talking heads seems to have anything interesting or illuminating to say about Salinger’s work. There’s a heavy focus on his Word War II years, and how it scarred him to the point of affecting his life and work for the rest of his living years.

Another focal point is Salinger’s obsessive relationships with young women, some of them still girls. One relationship that had not surfaced earlier also becomes a focal point: Jean Miller, who Salinger took an interest in when she was still 14. She says, “Jerry Salinger listened like you were the most important person in the world... I felt very free with him.” Jean Miller claims she was the inspiration for the character in For Esme, with Love and Squalor. They continued to have a platonic relationship for many years, and when she turned 20 or so, they had sex. And that, Miller says, ended it for Salinger. “I think he was enjoying me being a child all those years,” Miller goes on to say. “I knew it was over. I knew I had fallen off that pedestal.”

His work is still heavily copyrighted. So the film is unable to quote much from his work, which becomes odd in a film about a cult writer.

The film looks closely at his working relationship with his mentor at the New Yorker, the legendary editor William Shawn. This was a celebrated writer-editor relationship, but the movie casts a shadow over this as well. The stalkers, the fans and snoops who hounded Salinger, tell their stories in the film. More stories surface about what a hostile neighbour he was, and how he was rude and indifferent even to genuinely seeking devotees. All the same old stuff rehashed. One major thing in Salinger’s life, recently in the news after the J P Morgan library bought (and exhibited) the letters between Salinger and the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center in New York, is thinly explored here.

I’ll end with quoting movie critic David Edelstein on Shane Salerno’s Salinger biography: “The movie has certainly made me eager to dip into Vedantic philosophy, which calls for renouncing the world and became, according to Salerno, the organising principle of Salinger’s life and work. I’ll start by renouncing Salinger.”

(Published 14 September 2013, 14:19 IST)

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