He was the man who wrote one mind-blowing, generation-defining first novel and essentially vanished. Whether the obsession with J.D. Salinger was driven solely by his elusiveness or the lust to see more of his work may never be tangible. Shane Salerno's probing (though, at times, bloviating) documentary, Salinger, does its best to demystify the man and the myth, but really only serves to strip Salinger of a fair amount of his dignity.
Two days after J.D. Salinger's death on January 27, 2010, the release of Salinger was announced on film site Deadline.com. Somewhat blatant in capitalizing on the rejuvenated interest in Salinger, the documentary had been kept secret during its five years of production (Salerno probably knowing full well that Salinger would never have agreed to its release). Harvey Weinstein quickly acquired the rights for distribution and the publicity surrounding the film soared. The comprehensiveness of the documentary cannot be denied, as 150 subjects--including personalities as disparate as Gore Vidal, Martin Sheen and Joyce Maynard--were interviewed. Unseen archival footage and photos of Salinger during and after World War II also proved enticing to devout fans.
What comes across most in the film is Salinger's dedication to writing. His belief that a work should speak for itself instead of having to, in addition, give people morsels of information about one's personal life shines through in every interview with his acquaintances and associates. The attention paid to lesser talked about details of his life, like the adaptation of his short story, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" into the schmaltzy Samuel Goldwyn-backed My Foolish Heart, as well as his relationship with Oona O'Neill (daughter of the famed playwright Eugene O'Neill), is also one of the most valuable facets of Salinger.
Interviews with Salinger's former flames, like Jean Miller--the woman who purportedly inspired "For Esme--With Love and Squalor"--are by far the most interesting portions of Salerno's opus. But it doesn't get truly sordid until Joyce Maynard speaks on her time with the recluse. As was his usual wont, Salinger pursued the object of his affection through correspondence. After seeing Maynard grace the cover of The New York Times Magazine, Salinger wrote to her cautioning against the dangers of early and instant success. She dropped out of Yale to live with him in Cornish, New Hampshire shortly after. Long after things had fallen apart between them, Maynard returned to Cornish (around the time she was writing her tell-all about him) to ask, "What purpose did I serve in your life?" This, apparently prompted a tirade from the author in which he seethed, among other things, that she didn't deserve to know the answer to that question and then concluded with, "You know what your problem is? You love the world."
Apart from Salinger's relationships and marriages, one of which resulted in two children with Claire Douglas, the main emphasis of the film is his maniacal behavior with regard to writing. Spurred by the torment of a post-war existence, it is revealed that many of Salinger's later works (slated to be released between 2015 and 2020) take place during World War II--an era of his life he clearly never quite got over. But the fact that his first day in combat was on D-Day and that he was carrying the initial pages of the manuscript for The Catcher in the Rye, in essence, sums up his life: Fighting a war he didn't really want to for the benefit of his writing.
While the meticulousness of Salerno's effort is remarkable, there is something altogether passionless about the documentary. And maybe that's the result that comes with a subject that's so far removed from his documenters. Plus, one has to wonder: Would Salinger have enjoyed this documentary? Absolutely not (especially since the final scene features Coldplay's "Strawberry Swing" playing in the background).