“By being out of the picture, he is in the picture.” – Jack Wenke, Writer
There are a few “notoriously reclusive” people in the public consciousness. Among them are: Howard Hughes (subject of The Aviator), Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow), Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), and, of course, J.D. Salinger.
Imagine the blank page that the famous recluse offers a biographer. The sheer number of opportunities for interpretation is overwhelming since all we have are a few artifacts and even fewer people who knew him or her. But, as with any blank page, a recluse begs for the empty space to be shaped and molded into something recognizable – a filled emptiness that takes a form we can understand.
The fact that the recluse isn’t the one filling the page means little, as long as it’s filled.
This approach is a little appropriate with Salinger since so much of his story is about how his greatest work influenced, and continues to influence, so many readers. From Mark David Chapman (the man who killed John Lennon) and John Hinckley Jr. (the man who shot President Reagan) to other, less morbid, influences on almost every young life as he or she passes through that part of the grade school curriculum wherein Catcher in the Rye is required reading.
But without the man himself, or anyone from anything resembling an “inner-circle,” Salinger director Shane Salerno must create the authority on their subject.
This authority comes through interviews with Martin Sheen, Edward Norton, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, former friends, a rare book collector, various biographers, fans who sought to meet Salinger, and various writers (including the one quoted at the top of this article).
If that list sounds scattered and disjointed, that’s because it is. Most of these people only knew of Salinger through his work, his words, but not through interaction with him personally.
The interviews also include quite a lot of editorializing about the author’s motivations, perspectives, and feelings about his life and his work. Some simply make obvious connections (like Salinger’s clear gravitation towards younger women), but others go so far as to say that J.D. Salinger was Holden Caulfield, or that the PTSD he suffered as a result of WWII is buried deep in all of his writing.
Of course, without these interviews, we’d simply have a rote list of facts: informative, but dry.
Salinger attended, and was kicked out of, boarding schools at a young age. He submitted to, and was rejected by, The New Yorker as he shaped his craft. He landed on Utah Beach for D-Day. He met Hemingway in Paris. He married a German national after World War II, etc., etc.
These facts offer loads of information for anyone who doesn’t know much about the author and the full life he lived before retreating from the public eye. But putting them in any kind of order will be on the viewer since the film jumps and skips around in time. And sorting through them to separate fact from interpretation and plain conjecture takes a lot of work.
If you don’t know much about Salinger before sitting down to watch, you’ll find yourself with quite a work-load in getting to the solid, verifiable information. On the other hand, if you already have some basic knowledge about him, you’ll likely be frustrated at the amount eye-rolling you’ll do. And if you’re half-way between the two groups, as I was, you’ll wish that more of the filmmaker’s effort had been spent extrapolating from the factual bits while less running-time of the film was used pouring over salacious details.
It’s tough to recommend this film for anyone except the most avid of Salinger’s fans, and they’ve probably seen the man’s life examined better elsewhere.
Ultimately, this jumbled attempt at a documentary proves that an author doesn’t have the final say on his or her life any more than they do on their work. It’s the viewer, the reader, and the outside party who have the last word on the subject. After all, the blank page can’t write itself.