“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies,” declared Holden Caulfield. Not so his creator who nursed youthful dreams of being an actor and liked nothing better, later in life, than to curl up in front of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, or his personal favorite Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, in which Ronald Colman crash-lands in the Himalayas and stumbles across the secret of eternal youth. The perfect Salinger combination: enlightenment plus milk shake.
Deciphering the famously retiring author’s lifelong pursuit of the same, in both his work and his women, is the task set by a new documentary, produced by Harvey Weinstein, and directed by Shane Salerno, the screenwriter who gave us Michael Bay’s Armageddon, Oliver Stone’s Savages, and other such Sylphine tributes to innocence lost. You don't know what would offend Salinger more, the invasion of his privacy, or the fact that he was so intruded upon by the man who authored the line, “The United States government just asked us to save the world — anyone wanna say no?”
Salinger (PG-13) packs something of the same irresistibility. Salinger fan will see it through it through a frown of disdain, emitting occasional whimpers of protest, but see it they will for its revelations, dropped at cunningly dispersed at intervals throughout an otherwise wearying 2-hour-and-15-minute running time. This is very much Salinger in the eyes of Hollywood, with lots of ambition, demons, plushly exaggerated love interest, a portentous score that never quite dispels the suspicion that Bruce Willis will soon arrive and start blasting asteroids, plus an array of talking heads plucked from Harvey’s rolodex: Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Norton, even — God bless him — Judd Apatow, prompting the unbidden thought that Holden Caulfiled could easily have slipped into the cast-list of Freaks And Geeks, no question.
Of Salinger himself we see very little, of course, save for some re-enactments from a dynamic and swarthy young actor. See Salinger pounds away at his typewriter! Hefting logs up a mountains side! Running down a wrought-iron staircase (the same wrought-iron staircase, I believe, prowled by Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichols’s Wol) upon being rejected by Farrar-Strauss! And then just as you’re about to pelt the screen with peanuts for sheer phoniness, we get the real thing: the only known film footage of the actual Salinger, shot during the war, when he was at his most tall, dark and Clive Owenish, doffing his hat to Parisian women offering him flowers. He takes a single flower and tucks it into his hat brim — a piece of gallantry he nonetheless performs with ineffable and beguiling shyness.
Salinger’s war years have already been comprehensively detailed in Kenneth Slawenski’s 2010 biography, but here come fleshed out with some riveting archival footage. He had the kind of war that would make even Spielberg blush: storming the beaches of Normandy with 60 pages of Catcher in the Rye tucked under his uniform, surviving the Battle of the Bulge and “meat-grinder” of Hürtgen forest — they don’t say so here, but Salinger’s unit had a survival rate of one in four — before stumbling across the ashen horror of Dachau. Afterwards, Salinger promptly hospitalized himself for what the filmmakers call a “nervous breakdown”, from which proceeds their Big Idea — that, “the second world war made Salinger,” in the words of one of their countless talking heads, “it’s the ghost in the machine of all the stories.”
It’s certainly true that he saw enough combat — an astonishing 299 hours — to deprive a man of his wits, or that the voice that Salinger crafted for Holden Caulfield — marvelously intelligent, supple, quicksilver, only ever inches from a crack-up — can only have gained its fractured depth from his wartime experiences. It may even have something to do with the kamikaze arc of his work, which for all it’s pellucid brilliance and uncanny inner-ear, remains American literature’s most heartbreaking case of arrested development. He went straight from juveniles to eternal verities, without going via the thing that most of us would recognize as adulthood, both in his work and his life — stuck in a “a fantasy of innocence” in the words of Jean Miller, the 14-year-old he picked in Florida with the words “How’s Heathcliff?” when he saw what she was reading. “Troubled,” she replies. What follows is the film at its most winsomely naïve: seaside strolls, violin swells and lines like “he remained haunted by the love affair that never was.” Yeah right. Until he has sex with them, or they had babies, at which point the girls turn into women and Salinger runs for the hills.
The resulting portrait, for all Salinger’s peculiarity, seems horribly familiar. You don’t need the war to explain his relentless deforestation of friends and family. The technical term for this is “literary genius” — in Salinger’s case, a lightning strike of such force as to blacken anyone standing in the immediate vicinity — even, in the end, his readers, although Salinger’s famous retreat from the raucous din of publishing to pursue the zen-like purity of writing it’s own sake, turned out to be something of a feint. In the doc’s biggest coup, we find out that the fabled Salinger safe contains five unpublished works: two novels, one about his counter-intelligence work, and one a “love story” based on his first marriage to a German woman, a book about Salinger’s deloved Vedanta Hinduism (yawn), a reworked Holden Caulfield story Last and Best of the Peter Pans, and some new stories about Seymour Glass.
Most revealingly of all, each came with little green or red dot indicating which manuscripts required further work and which were ready for publication, and on what date. Shock, horror. He needed us after all.B-