** (out of four)
Midway through the alternately engrossing and frustrating documentary “Salinger,” the film informs us that the footage we’re about to see of Salinger during WWII has never been viewed publicly. The subsequent 20-ish seconds merely features the legendary, elusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye” standing on a street and talking to people.
If this is an exclusive, give me the widely available.
And “Salinger” does. Like so many news broadcasts for which little material is available, director Shane Salerno repeatedly uses the same photos, as if seeing them a sixth time will add information that the fifth glimpse didn’t. He also incorporates laughable dramatizations like a man on a stage, working intently on a typewriter in the dark. When the film gets to the 1951 publishing of its tall, lanky subject’s classic novel, sweeping strings accompany glowing reviews, and we later see modern students reading translated versions of the book. Wow, did you know this work was popular or something?
It’s not all dire and obvious. Through description from historians, biographers, ex-friends and an ex-lover or two, “Salinger” contains extensive information about the man (known to his friends as Jerry) who seems to have wanted success but didn’t consider the fawning attention it could bring. Photographers camped outside the Salinger compound eerily recall military surveillance of bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty,” and use of the last-recorded images of Salinger feel like archives from TMZ’s literary division. For some reason, celebs like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen also weigh in, despite appearing to have no expertise in the subject. Numerous contributors suggest the horrors Salinger witnessed in WWII both created his writing voice and destroyed him, though it’s a bit general for one talking head to say anyone who serves 200 days of combat goes insane.
The portrait painted in “Salinger,” which asserts that several new, allegedly defining Salinger works will appear between 2015 and 2020, depicts a difficult man in a professional context--Salinger ended a friendship because his pal wasn’t able to ensure a desired title for a short story. It also shows a man who shied away not from society as a whole but from the attention of adoring readers desperate to get close to his perceived genius. In this, Salerno misses a chance to broaden his focus and chronicle the public’s selfish demand for an artist to be prolific and communicative, as well as other cases (like D’Angelo, to name just one) in which an artist’s success has lead to detachment.
In its drooling fixation, “Salinger” perpetuates a problem that the film fails to acknowledge: Artists’ most devoted supporters frequently refuse to oblige their simple request to be left alone.
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