Thursday, December 12, 2013

Catching up with Shane Salerno's SALINGER: All that fuss because he dared tackle a sacred cow?

Were you as surprised as I by the level of vituperation in some of the reviews of SALINGER, the documentary about a lot of people's favorite American author that was released theatrically earlier this year? In retrospect, this reaction reminds me of the level of nastiness accorded certain other movies -- Matthew Chapman's anti-religion film, The Ledge, or Anne Fontaine's film of Doris Lessing's mothers/sons love story, Adore -- that take the much less "approved" side while tackling taboo topics. After I read a few of the Salinger notices, "Whew," I thought, "this one must absolutely stink!" Guess what? It doesn't. Not at all. In fact, it's a surprisingly rich and interesting documentary about the reclusive author, dead now for almost four years. It offers some genuinely surprising material -- at least to someone like me, who, while not a huge Salinger fan, could admit that the guy's work was certainly worth reading.

Much of this material presented here is presumably true information about the man, his history and his work, and yes, it delves into the personal life that he tried so hard to keep private. But what worthwhile documentary wouldn't? (Ah, yes: some of those deifying American Masters docs, like the recent one on Philip Roth!)  Evidently, though, this delving was just too much for some of our more adoring critics, whose reviews seemed to scream, How dare you go there?!. Well, sweeties, Shane Salerno (shown at left) does go there, but not in any more sleazy a manner than have other documentarians who rounded up a bunch of talking heads and let them do their thing on the subject of a man and writer whom they knew pretty well.

Most of the interviewees here are very much "pro" Mr. Salinger, by the way. Ex-girlfriend Joyce Maynard (shown below) isn't too keen on the man (did anyone expect her to be?), although she certainly was on the writer. Nor is the subject's daughter. But, hell, how often does an artist sacrifice his family on the altar of his art? Let's start counting, and we'll be back in touch tomorrow.

If you are one of those who tried to follow every one of this reclusive guy's moves over the decades while you breathlessly waited for his next short story, or worse, that sequel to "Catcher in the Rye" that never arrived (Why should it have? Why should an artist have to repeat himself?), then maybe much of this doc will be old news to you. I was not one of those "fans," and so most of what I saw and heard here I found very much worth seeing and hearing.

The most interesting sections have to do with Salinger's desire to be published by The New Yorker and what he did to bring said desire to fruition. His penchant for discouraging editors and publishers from changing even one word of his work seems to have paid off handsomely. Also of great interest will be the man's activities during World War II (above and below), how his interaction with the Holocaust affected him (and certainly his writing), and the German bride he brought back to the States. How and why he was so drawn to young girls on the cusp of young womanhood is also explored. If this sounds a little sleazy, it's not handled that way: It seems more like an attraction that many men have, I think, and Salinger was simply one more of these, albeit a lot more famous.

But if you look at this fellow as some sort of god and his work as tantamount to the Bible, then of course, you'll have trouble with this documentary and any other that dares encroach on your deity. (In addition to the newsprint and online reviews, tale a look at those on the Netflix streaming site for the film. Reading some of these, it is clear that these reviewers are reviewing not the documentary itself but their own great love for Mr. Salinger.)

I admit I was a bit shocked at the several instances of mass murderers and other killers who had a copy of this author's most popular book on their person while they were doing their dirty work. But, hey, you can't blame Salinger for this. Can you? I don't think Salerno does. Instead he's sees it as just one more strange piece of the puzzle of art and the human character, and how good or great writing can affect certain people for better or worse.

Because TrustMovies was never a big Salinger fan, he wasn't even going to watch this documentary. But there it was, just sitting and waiting for a "click" via Netflix streaming. And so he did click, and once he began the film, he found himself so interested that he didn't want to stop. I think you may feel this way, too, and as Salinger is now available to stream, I suggest that, whatever your feeling about the man and his work, you take a chance on the film, watch it, and weigh in.

Interestingly enough, this Salinger documentary is actually going to be broadcast on PBS' American Masters series on January 21, 2014, at 9pm. Viewers may end up getting more here than they bargained for. At the very least, it will send them off looking for a way to view the old 1949 film, My Foolish Heart (based on, yes, the Salinger short story, Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut).

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