Monday brought a surprise first-ever showing of Shane Salerno’s two-hour “Salinger” documentary, which hits theaters September 6, via the Weinstein Company. Several shaken up Weinstein execs arrived in Telluride after surviving a crash landing at the Telluride airport. “I’m never flying again,” wrote Emmy Chang on Facebook. She was handing out to press the new book upon which the film based, also titled “Salinger” (co-authored by director Salerno and David Shields), which hits bookstores September 3. Clearly this is a case of savvy cross-promotion.
The book “Salinger,” “The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film,” received a less-than-glowing review on August 25 by the NY Times’ lit critic Michiko Kakutani, faulting it for “sloppy scholarship,” and writing that while the high number of interviewees the book-documentary project has boasted from the beginning (more than 200 people) shows energy on Salerno’s part, a number of entries in the volume are actually taken from previous books and articles. David L. Ulin of the LA Times, however, wrote a more positive review, stating that “At nearly 700 pages, it’s a bit of a shaggy monster, yet what may be most astonishing about it is its (largely) even tone. “
The doc, which took Salerno (co-writer of Oliver Stone’s “Savages”) over nine years to complete, is a thorough portrait of the enigmatic, reclusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” taking us through his prep school days and early short-story writing–his goal to be published in The New Yorker had to wait until after World War II. He landed in France on D-Day and served 299 days in active combat before V-Day, writing “Catcher in the Rye” by the side of the road when he could. After witnessing the horrors of the holocaust at a concentration camp and doing espionage work in post-war Germany hunting down Nazis, he brought home a Nazi war bride to his Jewish father, but the marriage was annulled after a month.
Salinger died at age 91 in January 2010, and hadn’t published a work since 1965. Included among the interviewees are Salinger’s closest friends and colleagues who have never spoken about him before, and archival footage of the writer. Other notable personalities talking about Salinger and his cultural impact are Philip Seymour Hoffman, A.E. Hotchner, John Guare, Edward Norton, Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal, among others.
The film suffers from too many reenactments, many of them ham-fisted, of the author writing in his bunker tapping away on a Royal typewriter, etc. The book also omits any readings or quotes from his work in favor of a psychological approach to the stories and novel. And the score is overly dramatic and portentous. (Eric Kohn agrees, too, but praised the film in his Indiewire review.)
Astonishingly, several publishers passed on “Catcher in the Rye” before Little Brown released the literary sensation in 1951. Salinger made the cover of Time in 1961. The novel has sold 60 million copies and still sells 250,000 copies a year. Three murderers have cited the book as an influence on their actions. Fame and fortune soon drove the reclusive author–described as “the Howard Hughes of his day,” to retreat to a remote mountain top aerie in Cornish, New Hampshire, where several photographers and writers tracked him down over the years. “I am not a counselor,” he told one of them. “I am a fiction writer.”
After one awful Hollywood movie “My Foolish Heart,” based on the story “Uncle Wiggley in Connecticut,” Salinger turned his back on Hollywood, from Billy Wilder to Jerry Lewis, and literally closed the door in Elia Kazan’s face, according to one story. The big reveal in the two-hour five minute movie is the fact that Jerry Salinger had stored in his safe at his home in New Hampshire–as reported by one-time lover, author Joyce Maynard– a series of novels. It turns out they will be published by his literary foundation, created in 2008, in prescribed order from 2015 through 2020, including full family chronicles of the Glass and Caulfield families. No film version of “Catcher in the Rye” will ever be permitted.
They also include a novella about his counterintelligence work after World War II, as well as a love story from that period based on his first marriage. And there’s a religious manual about his beloved Vedanta.
Maynard, who came to Telluride with Jason Reitman’s movie “Labor Day,” based on her novel, confirmed that the filmmakers are trying to distance themselves from her and did not invite her to the screening. Nonetheless she sat in the front row, as pointed out at a post-screening Q & A by documentarian Ken Burns. Salinger wrote several letters to Maynard after she hit on the cover of the New York Times Magazine at age 18. She eventually met with him and moved in with him, trying to meditate and cuddling on the sofa watching 16 mm films: his favorite movie was “Lost Horizon.”
She eventually wrote a memoir and went to visit Salinger, at which point he was quite punitive. “I always knew this is what you would amount to,” she says he told her. “Nothing, writing meaningless garbage. The problem with you, Joyce, is you love the world.” His estranged daughter Margaret wrote her own memoir, “Dream Catcher.”
Maynard is angry that the film does not come down hard enough on Salinger as serial predator of young girls. “I think the film is an extraordinary accomplishment, vastly expanding our understanding of an important writer and the effect of post-traumatic stress on him,” she told me after the screening. “And absent from that portrait is one crucial element very personal to me which is the post-traumatic stress inflicted upon dozens of –not women– but girls. They’re spoken of as women, there was not a single woman in Salinger’s life. They were girls, and I was one of them. I survived well. I have a film here and a new novel out that has nothing to do with Salinger. But there will not be a complete portrait of Salinger until it is fully acknowledged that he engaged in serial repeated emotional damage to dozens of young girls.
“I studied post traumatic stress for years. I’ve spoken to counselors and therapists because it something that was well known that I had to overcome after my experience with Salinger. And I am a strong person, I am not going around as a victim and a damaged person. But to create a two hour film about Salinger that fails to acknowledge the repeated effect not simply of post-traumatic stress on Salinger but his repeated inflicted stress and damage on girls –and not women– is a serious gap in that story.”