'Salinger' Fails To Illuminate Writer
Published: Sunday, September 22, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 22, 2013 21:09
Salinger, a documentary film whose enigmatic trailers have been circulating the Internet for some time now, opened in Boston last weekend, following its opening in New York City a week prior. To maintain the thematic secrecy that seems to surround the story—and as one soon discovers, everything about J.D. Salinger’s private life—it opened, and continues to play only at the Kendall Square Cinema, across the river in Cambridge. As it’s a documentary, one may already entertain some reservations about seeing it, let alone spending money on a ticket and a solid evening of T travel to get there. And as is the case for most documentaries, one would most certainly appreciate the information and storyline of Salinger from the comfort of his or her own couch—no exertion necessary. It was made to appeal to a relatively small audience, namely those who have read Salinger’s works and view them with some sort of cultish reverence, or at the least, any reverence at all. Its flaws originate from its presentation, making it intellectually stimulating but ultimately visually confusing.
The format of the film itself is haphazard, which detracts from the experience and creates the impression that information is being flung aimlessly outward in every direction. It opens with snippets of interviews in rapid succession discussing random faces without context or any explanation of their relationship to the significance of the movie. The selection of those interviewed seems arbitrary and random at best. These interviews continue to be layered, throughout the film, upon distracting text, images, and video footage.
It would almost seem that the directors of the film are much more excited to tell Salinger’s story than any audience member could hope to be while watching it. An intensely dramatic musical score undulates through the scenes, diving through such exaggerated crescendos that one often feels crushed against the seat, blown back by the force of the film’s strangled efforts to pull the audience into it. During these musical episodes of obvious cinematic importance, one is tempted to look around the theater for a face that might explain the meaning behind, or the occasion for, such a sudden increase in volume.
The same judgment could be passed on the visual components, including the images and film footage, which are used in an attempt to enrich the narrated storyline but often simply evoke a perpetual sense of ocular frustration. Repeated pictures and film clips are used over and over again, throughout the narration, until it becomes unclear whether what was happening within the images was actually being described at all. This lends the overall experience a slight sense of falsity—ironic given Salinger’s well known literary themes of fakeness, best remembered from The Catcher in the Rye in Holden Caulfield’s “phonies.” The content is nevertheless interesting, and the viewer finds himself wanting to be won over by the experience, frequently looking for a way to fall into it, as naturally becomes the case with a truly great film, fiction or non-fiction. But unfortunately, the only hint of that sensation is felt at the close, when the confusion of images finally fade to a simple black screen with highlighted text that reveals the fate of Salinger’s unpublished literature.
The movie reflects the larger-than-life aura of mystery that was built around Salinger by those who not only loved his work, but who saw a part of themselves within it. Although confusing, the film constructs, with apparent ease, the beautifully and deeply mystified persona of an author defined, and consequently driven into seclusion by his greatest achievements. It captures the culture that his writing created, and with surprising precision, it encapsulates what his literature meant to the world. For all its shortcomings, this aspect of the film is powerful.
Toward the end, the screen flashes through the most recent, and therefore last, documented photographs of J.D. Salinger, who died in 2010. He appears only as a wrinkled and weary old man, slightly bent by the years that have weighed upon his shoulders, by the world that he saw and simply sought to explain.