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Overall Rating
1.57

Awesome: 14.29%
Worth A Look: 0%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap85.71%

1 review, 1 rating


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Salinger
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by Peter Sobczynski

"This Film Blew, Period"
1 stars

Once upon a time, as readers of a certain age may recall, there was a film company named Sunn Classics that specialized in documentaries that claimed to present astonishing revelations about awe-inspiring subjects--things like proof of the existence of aliens or the afterlife--but only delivered haphazardly assembled collections of poorly staged dramatic recreations, interviews with so-called experts whose credibility was as dubious as their observations and lots of stock footage, none of which ever quite got around to presenting any of the good stuff. When it came time to release the film to the public, however, they would go from town to town and saturate the area with relentless ad campaigns that were so lurid and which promised so much that the theaters would be jam-packed the weekend it opened. Sure, all they got was a rip-off but by the time the word began to get around in those pre-Internet days that the film failed to deliver, it had already moved on to the next town to repeat the cycle all over again.

Thanks to a shift in motion picture distribution patterns and the fact that audiences eventually began to get wise to their form of cinematic chicanery, Sunn stopped putting out films of this sort by the beginning of the 1980's but while watching "Salinger," I had the uncanny feeling that the were somehow back in business. Like their infamous past works, this is astonishingly shabby documentary that has arrived amidst an avalanche of hype cannily constructed to disguise just how vapid and empty it really is. This isn't just a bad documentary--it is a shameless con job that promises grand revelations about one of the most mysterious and influential authors of our time but offer up all the solid information and keen insight of a high school book report slapped together the night before it was due. This is a film made by phonies for phonies and one that somehow manages to come across as both sleazily exploitative and staggeringly boring at the same time.

To be fair, anyone attempting to do a documentary on Salinger has a number of enormous obstacles to overcome. After all, this is a man who, during his life, rarely gave interviews, never appeared on television and never even published anything after 1964. Even the number of known photographs of him taken during his life would be considered a handful at best. As for other sources, most of the key people in his life are deceased and of those who are still alive, the ones who could offer the most insight into who he was as a person--family members and close friends--refused to take part in this project. A potentially interesting movie could still be made under these extreme circumstances, I suppose, but to do so would take an enormous amount of skill and creativity and even then, the filmmakers would still have to grapple with the overriding notion that they are making a movie dedicated to the idea of invading the privacy of a man who cherished that above almost everything else in life.

So what has director Shane Salerno--best know for his contributions to the screenplays of "Armageddon" and the "Alien vs. Predator" movies--managed to assemble in his ten-year-long quest to tell Salinger's story that would work around the lack of primary source material? We get countless glimpses of the same few photographs sprinkled throughout the seemingly endless amount of stock footage. There are long segments dedicated to people who essentially stalked him around his home in Cornish, New Hampshire in the hopes of either meeting their idol--who would presumably bestow the secrets of life upon them--or snapping an illicit photo or two from afar to run in "Newsweek." We get commentary on his work from a gallery of talking heads whose actual connection to the man is in inverse proportion to their fame--Martin Sheen, for example, gets a lot of face time for reasons that remain a mystery to me.


We get interviews with old girlfriends Jean Miller and Joyce Maynard that serve to underscore that Salinger had a thing for the young stuff dating back to when he was seeing Oona O'Neill when she was only 16 (a romance that ended abruptly when he was off to war and she married Charlie Chaplin just after her 18th birthday), a relationship that he would apparently try to replicate throughout his life. Some of the stuff involving Miller is mildly intriguing, if occasionally quease-inducing (he apparently befriended her when she was only 14, carried on a platonic relationship that was eventually consummated when she turned 18 and then essentially dumped her for good the morning after), but Maynard's revelations are essentially a rehash of what she wrote a few years in a largely reviled memoir of her time with Salinger and feel more like another helping of sour grapes. We even get a series of dramatic recreations in which we see an actor impersonating Salinger sitting on a stage behind a desk in a hilariously inept attempt at illustrating his creative process, complete with a small child sitting around at key points in what I presume is meant to represent his lost innocence or some shit like that.

So what about all the never-before-seen footage and images and surprise revelations that are being positioned as the key promotional hook for "Salinger"? Well, they are doled out throughout the film but it is unlikely that anyone other than the most obsessive of individuals will come away satisfied. There is a very brief silent film clip of Salinger in Europe immediately after the war receiving flowers from a young woman and a couple of new photos, including one snapped on the street by Salerno and his crew just before Salinger's passing and with, it is implied, his blessing. There are also a couple of rare photos that are trotted out over and over again in an effort to put something on the screen--at one point, Salerno even puts a few photos of Salinger walking down a street into a loop to create the vague illusion of movement that might inspire one's grandmother to say "That's nice, dear."

As for the new information, there is the suggestion that Salinger's first wife, a German woman that he brought over to America, may have been a Nazi. We learn that he may not have been quite as reclusive as suggested--there are talks of luncheons in Manhattan and the occasional sojourn into the small New Hampshire town where he spent the last few decades of his life. We hear tell of five manuscripts locked away in a vault that are set to be published between 2015-2020 and which allegedly include complete collections of stories involving the Glass and Caulfield families and a full-length novel inspired by his first marriage--of course, we don't actually get a look at these literary holy grails but since this revelation comes at the very end of a very long film, the assumption is that most viewers will presumably be heading for the aisles to notice or complain about the lack of tangible proofs.

What you won't find at any point during "Salinger" is anything about the man or his work that might help viewers to understand why both have captured the imaginations of so many readers in the decades since the publication of "The Catcher in the Rye." To do that would require actual emotional and literary insight on the part of Salerno and his contributors but there is precious little of either one on display throughout. Instead of cogent analysis of Salinger's writings strictly on its literary merits, we get "experts" invoking silly pet theories like one avowing that "Catcher in the Rye" is essentially a war novel because Salinger wrote parts of it while serving in combat overseas. Instead of musing on why it has continued to speak to so many subsequent generations of readers, we get shots of smiling kids clutching their copies while John Cusack prattles on about how cool it was to read it.

Instead of thoughtfully musing on why Salinger's words could be twisted by deranged individuals like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley into justifications for their horrible actions, writer John Guare says something so foolish that I dare not repeat it here. Instead of shedding any insight why a man who conquered the literary world in such a startling manner would so decisively turn his back upon it to embrace whatever privacy he could still hold onto, we learn that he had an undescended testicle--ironic since the movie as a whole is complete balls. (To be fair, I cannot now recall if that last revelation appeared in the movie or was exclusive to the mammoth oral biography that Salerno has published in conjunction with the release of the film to make a few more bucks off the whole enterprise but there is no way I am passing up on a setup like that.)

"Salinger" is one of the shabbiest and tackiest documentaries I have seen in a long time--a movie that seems to have been made by and for people who dutifully carried around a copy of "Catcher in the Rye" throughout their teen years but who never quite got around to actually reading it. The odd thing is that my outrage towards it is not the anger of someone upset at seeing one of their heroes being subjected to such an inept cinematic treatment. To be honest, I have never been much of a fan of Salinger or his work and have always considered "Catcher in the Rye" to be one of the most overrated books ever written (though I did like some of the early Glass family stories before they got too pretentious). That said, I do concede that he was an enormously significant figure in the history of American literature and that a compelling film could have been made about him and his work. However, "Salinger" is not that film--even Nicholas Sparks would deserve something better than this. As Holden Caulfield once said,"The goddam movies. They can ruin you. I'm not kidding."

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Literally three days before the scheduled local opening of "Salinger" (which had already had two release date postponements during the previous two weeks), I received a note from the local publicist informing me that the version that was now opening in theaters was a different edit from the one that had screened for the press and suggested that we should see the new cut before reviewing it. (Of course, the screening of that variation was held so late in the day that it would be virtually impossible to get a review up and ready in time for the Friday opening, but I am sure that was only a coincidence.) As I informed the publicist, unless the new footage included either an extended interview with Jerry Lewis (who tried for many years to sell him the screen rights to "Catcher in the Rye" so that he could play Holden Caulfield) or a prologue featuring Salerno and distributor Harvey Weinstein apologizing for foisting such a cheesy rip-off onto a curious public, I could not see how a new version could overcome the problems that the film suffers from at its most basic levels. In the interest of full disclosure, I just wanted to state that the version of "Salinger" that I have reviewed is apparently not the one that you will be seeing if you are foolish enough to see it and that I do not know in what ways this cut differs from the one that I did see. Maybe in the the new one, Lennon fires first.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=24991&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/20/13 07:38:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2013 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/20/13 Doctor Biobrain Dude, you nailed it. Lennon did indeed fire first and Salinger covered up the whole thing. 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  06-Sep-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 10-Dec-2013

UK
  N/A

Australia
  06-Sep-2013
  DVD: 10-Dec-2013


Directed by
  Shane Salerno

Written by
  Shane Salerno

Cast
  (documentary)



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