You may have read how we attempted to stalk Michael McDermott
, the man who lurked outside a Vermont post office to photograph J.D. Salinger. The documentary about the reclusive author, Salinger
, isn't out till Friday, Sept. 13, and it's just as rewarding as the photo McDermott eventually snapped—which is to say, not very.
Critic's Grade: C-
It probably goes without saying that J.D. Salinger, who spent the last four decades of his life avoiding the public eye, would be appalled at the very idea of Shane Salerno’s new documentary about him. Fans of the media-averse author of The Catcher in the Rye
will be even more conflicted: The film is exhaustively researched in a way that’s not only revealing but invasive, as Salerno is often more interested in digging up dirt—and gaining credit for being the one holding the shovel—than in providing any genuine insight. Instead of investigating the disparity between our deified image of Salinger and the reality presented by the unearthed material, Salinger
is a voyeuristic assemblage of anecdotes and previously unseen photos.
The fact that Salinger fervently rejected the claim that he was a “seer” who could solve his readers’ problems, for instance, is relegated to an afterthought. Had Salerno wrestled with this idea directly, it might have helped make sense of his years-long endeavor. Also indirectly touched upon but not actually explored is the connection between Salinger's experiences in World War II (which “created” him, according to one interviewee) and his obsession with childlike innocence—you get the sense that this is filmmaking devoid of insight, rather than a deliberate choice to trust viewers' ability to read between the lines. None of this is helped by the corny reenactments of a foreboding Salinger hunched over his typewriter, cigarette in mouth, as needlessly bombastic music announces what a tortured soul he was.
Far and away the biggest, most newsworthy reveal is that five new works are to be released in “irregular installments” starting sometime between 2015 and 2020. Unsurprisingly, Salerno saves this scoop for the end. Two of these books, both heavily autobiographical, tell WWII stories: One centers on a counterintelligence officer and the other is about a soldier who falls in love with a German woman. The strangest of the bunch is a Vedanta religious manual with fables woven throughout. The Family Glass, which, as its title implies, expands on the Glass family mythos, will likely be the biggest draw, along with a retooled version of Salinger's first Holden Caulfield story, which likewise goes into greater depth about the character's entire family. Yet for how tantalizing the documentary seems in theory, actually absorbing it proves mostly disenchanting. Curious, then, that it ends with an interviewee's anecdote of almost meeting Salinger and realizing he didn't need to—it's as though Salerno anticipates viewers' reaction to seeing his movie.