Salinger – Shane Salerno reveals himself to be the great Holden-Caufield-Wannabe. (Film Review)

Below is Will Smiths great monologue about The Catcher in the Rye from the film Six Degrees of Separation. Its one of my favourite cinema moments and well worth the watch if you have 5 minutes.

I haven’t read “The Catcher” for years although I fairly regularly read Nine Stories.  Because of this, I thought I had better read through the wiki on Salinger before I went to the documentary to make sure I could keep up. In the end I am sorry I did that, because the documentary acts as an information package on Salinger’s life that is inferior to the chronology detailed in Wikipedia. Salinger revealed very little about Salinger. It interviews many people associated with him at different aspects of his life, and yet strangely only scratches at the surface. Salinger avoids anything intimate, dwelling instead on chronology of events, mythologizing Salinger’s war-time experience, and the rather strange obsession the documentary has with Salinger refusing his own fame. I say this is peculiar, because Salinger (as is accidentally brought out in the documentary) was never a real recluse, he just refused to engage with the hype around The Catcher in the Rye in whatever form that took. If Salerno had asked different questions of the people he interviews, and hadn’t been so astonished with Salinger’s out right refusal of celebrity status, we might have had a real film on our hands. In many ways, Salerno has made a film about a fan, who became a director and made a documentary about a man whose most famous book he loved, but never understood.

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Jerome David Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951.  It was published when Salinger was in his early thirties and after he had suffered many rejections for his short stories and for the book itself. It launched Salinger into enormous popularity. Then, at the height of his success and fame, he retreats into a kind of self-imposed seclusion, writes furiously for the rest of his life, and publishes very little of it. He died a year and a half ago, and one of his final arrangements was the begin the process of the publications of his life’s works. As of 2015, we will start to see brand new Salinger novels appearing on our shelves.

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However, Shane Salerno, writer of Shaft, Armageddon and the Alien v’s Predator films, seems to have looked at Salinger, and seen right past the writer of high integrity, to the brilliant public media strategist he imagines Salinger really is. Salinger wrote the quintessential teen-tome on modern alienation and discomfort with the artifice of what we project to the other. Given this premise, how can anyone be surprised that he doesn’t want to become a media darling? But Salerno is.

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On Jan 29 2010, Deadline Hollywood broke an exclusive story that a documentary had been made about Salinger, written, directed and produced at his own expense by Salerno. Salerno also co-wrote a book about Salinger with David Shields. Part of the breaking story detailed a security protocol placed on the film for five years. As far as I can tell, this ‘security protocol’ is pointless, because it certainly had nothing to do with Salinger himself (as it implies, given Salinger often sued his biographers and refused to be interviewed) and the film took five years to make.  According to the Deadline Hollywood article, this five years was an ‘obsession’ by Salerno to hunt everything down about Salinger and get into the heart of the man. Of course, lucky for us, during this five-year obsession when Salerno could think of nothing other than Salinger, he also managed to squirrel a little time away to write Shaft, UC: Undercover, Alien v’s Predator, Ghostrider, Alien v’s Predator Requiem, Hawaii Five O and Savages with Oliver Stone. He was also executive producer on two of these films, consulting producer on one and director of one. All of these films stand in complete opposition to everything Salinger stood for, by any measure, and to be fair, there was pretty much zero “buzz” around Salerno’s Salinger project until Salinger died in 2010, when Deadline Hollywood became interested. Salerno expressed concern that the interest was opportunistic, given Salinger had just passed away, but he was over that sentiment by the end of the day, and the article went to print. As far as I can tell, the “five year secret” is an overweening fur-fee.  It also treats Salinger’s desire for privacy as if it were a media stunt to be copied by Salerno as a strategy around his own film.

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Salinger believed very strongly that the best possible access to the writer is through their work and that this should be the only thing of interest to the reader. Why Salerno thinks it is a good idea to ignore this cry, rather than examine it, is anyone’s guess, but interviewing rabid fans who sit at the end of Salinger’s driveway hoping to catch a glimpse of him as he rides to town does not very interesting viewing make.  What would have been fascinating is to examine the relationship between The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield and the man Salinger himself. How much of Holden Caufield’s declarative angst was played out in Salinger’s life? To really place this question of the writer and his work under the microscope is relevant and intimately connected to Salinger. Salerno lacks the intelligence to see the value of this question and instead dots his pointless chronology with Salinger’s interests in underage females and endless images of rattle-boned corpses from the Second World War. Salerno can’t connect with Salinger’s sensitivity, so he works overtime to portray him as a wounded “man’s man”.  Or rather, a messed-up “dude’s dude”.

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Salerno has some amazing characters from Salinger’s life available to be interviewed, including several of the young women Salinger had relationships with, and yet he asks such meaningless questions of them, or manipulates them to give the “cartoon” version of the relationships that we are never better for having heard from them. It’s a terrible shame, culminating in the awful suspicion that the people around Salinger were so silly that it was no wonder he took for cover rather than interact. Salerno projects as jealous of these women who were so close to Salinger motivating his limp interview methods.  Most of the women are so poorly portrayed, so inadequately interviewed, that one can’t help feeling Salerno willed a ‘hopeless bimbo” status on them, hoping all the time that his manipulations will be seen as brilliant observations, archival brushing away at the dusty surface to reveal the granular gems of a genius who, amazingly, turns out to be so similar to Salerno himself. Salerno desperately imposes so much of himself into the film that we get a closer, deeper look at the director than we ever could at Salinger.

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In the end, Salerno is just another Holden-Caufiled-wannabe, trying to convince the world that he and Salinger had a connection that no one else understands. The only revelation in Salinger, is that it doesn’t matter how many times Salerno reads The Catcher in the Rye, he’ll never get it, and that’s part of what Salinger was running from. If, by any amazing chance, Salerno held his film back and under wraps for five years to avoid Salinger ever having to see it, that would be the only piece of intelligence one can credit to the documentary.

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