“Salinger”: How Not to Make a Biographical Documentary

September 12, 2013 § 6 Comments

J. D. Salinger in 1950/Photo by Lotte Jacobi via Wikipedia

J. D. Salinger in 1950/Photo by Lotte Jacobi via Wikipedia

“Salinger,” the new documentary by Shane Salerno, has a fascinating subject, an intriguing trailer and enviable distribution via the Weinstein Company. What it doesn’t have, unfortunately, is good filmmaking. Salerno, a feature screenwriter making his documentary debut, apparently suffers from the conceit that documentaries aren’t as interesting as feature films, and that no one given a choice in the matter would watch the former.

You would think that with the notoriously reclusive author of “The Catcher In The Rye” as his subject, Salerno would have more faith in documentary technique, but you would be wrong. In a desperate attempt to hold the audience’s interest, he gooses his too-long film (129 minutes) with overly dramatic music and a truckload of re-enactments, most of which are so literal that they insult the intelligence of everyone who has gone beyond pre-school. (Not sure what, exactly, a writer does? Don’t worry, Salerno will show you, via a Salingeresque actor who types reams of paper over the course of the film.)

As far as re-enactments go, the typing just the beginning. When Salinger’s former teenage crush (she was 14; he was 32) Jean Miller talks about their chaste walks on the beach in Daytona, you’ll see actors playing Jerry and Jean walking on the beach. After Salinger exiles himself to Cornish, N.H., Salerno not only shows the bunker where he holes up to write but stand-ins for his wife Claire and daughter Peggy who, forbidden to enter, must gaze forlornly at it. Inside, the Salinger impersonator types up a storm, throwing piles of paper around to show us his creative anguish. Nothing is left undramatized, let alone unsaid.

In Salerno’s defense, he had very few photos of Salinger to work with, and even less moving footage. The photo above, which appeared on “The Catcher In The Rye” and is certainly the best-known image of the author, is used at least fifty times. The few other photos he has–of Salinger with his Army buddies and leaving the Cornish, N.H., post office–are repeated many times as well. Given the lack of Salinger photos, re-enactments are a legitimate way of filling in visual gaps. But the sheer number of them, and their obviousness, is an annoyance. Rather than letting his interviewees simply talk, Salerno is forever cutting away–to the farmhouse, the bunker, the beach. It’s especially odd given the care with which he stages the interviews, most of which are set in rooms with sweeping and varied views–of New York City, the Santa Monica Mountains, the waters off the Malibu Pier.

But there is a reward for the viewer: after nearly two hours, you finally get the details about Salinger’s secret manuscripts, including a memoir and two novels, as well as a timetable for their publication. That brief segment is thrilling, in part because Salerno couldn’t do it as a re-enactment. But the overall effect of “Salinger” is a curious one: you’re left with considerable sympathy for a strange, unlikable dead writer who–for all his faults–deserves a better documentary.

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