"Salinger" does what so many documentaries and biopics either fail to do or decline to attempt: It speculates convincingly on the connective tissue between the life and the work of the subject.
Director Shane Salerno’s documentary exhaustively researches author J.D. Salinger and interviews hosts of people who knew "Jerry" well, wrote of him extensively or simply admired his work. And although it turns over new stones, its conjecture — the very thing that makes it admirably ambitious — may occasionally overreach.
Opens today at Kahala 8
"Salinger" overcomes some melodramatic moments and hit-or-miss cinematic devices to present a fascinating picture of one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic writers, who retreated from public life only to be pursued by prying fans.
The film traces his works side by side with his life. The author’s experiences in World War II, as described by unit mates and his own words, are projected as a direct influence on his writing, helping illuminate one of the author’s most prominent characters, doomed veteran Seymour Glass.
Although the filmmakers are unquestionably admirers, this is a warts-and-all portrait. Stories of Salinger’s arrogance and unforgiving nature accompany stories of his charm and generosity. His detachment as husband and father is detailed by those who knew him best, including his daughter.
Even his preference for far younger women is explored, to the point of painting nearly a Humbert Humbert figure, complete with shattering experiences to explain how his feminine ideal could freeze at a certain age. (Salinger is not portrayed as a pedophile, and the younger women with whom he had relationships describe long pursuits of him rather than vice versa.)
This approach sometimes yields insight into his works, notably "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "For Esmé, with Love and Squalor." And the documentary breaks news of intended posthumous publications, albeit from anonymous sources.
The film also examines the cult of personality that sprung up jointly because of "Catcher in the Rye’s" universal speaking of angst-to-power and Salinger’s decision to stop publishing and giving interviews. Both that worship’s ugliness and the ways in which the writer himself may have fed it are shown.
He did live an unusually disconnected life, spending his days writing in a bunkerlike structure, in a canvas jumpsuit his daughter describes as a "uniform," but the very notion of Salinger-as-recluse is challenged as well, with sound bites from locals describing his frequent appearances in town.
There is plain irony in so personal — and plainly speculative — a portrait of a man who so jealously guarded his privacy. "Salinger" occasionally blurs the line between straight documentary and the sensational reports that smear the airwaves (complete with thriller-movie music).
But what emerges is a complex portrait of a complex man: a Jewish counterintelligence officer who married a woman who may have been a Nazi; a world-renowned author who continued to write privately after last publishing in 1965; and a celebrity whose parting shot to a former paramour (Bay Area author Joyce Maynard) was, "The problem with you … is you love the world."