MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Salinger’

Who is J.D. Salinger, the man behind Holden Caulfield? An angry, narcissistic recluse? A shell-shocked combat veteran who could never chase the smell of burning flesh from his consciousness? A serial exploiter of women? An unwitting prophet of death?

Director Shane Salerno daringly poses but fails to deliver meaningful answers to these questions in “Salinger,” his new documentary about the author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” the perennially popular literary classic and cultural touchstone of adolescent rebellion.

Salinger” indulges a dark vision of the author as isolating himself from humanity to act as a distant god to the families of characters he created, even shamefully hinting that he bears responsibility for the criminal acts of Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, simply because they appropriated his work as a manifesto. In its compulsion to establish dramatic tension, the film stumbles, with tacky re-enactments, reductive visual juxtapositions and portentous music.

Some of the archival work here is laudable, including the discovery of footage of Salinger’s wartime service and a still photograph of him working on “The Catcher in the Rye” as a soldier. The film is mostly sharp in its reconstruction of the author’s World War II experience. After failing induction medicals, he finally entered the Army in time to land with the 4th Division at Utah Beach on D-Day. He saw some of the toughest fighting in the war, in the farmlands of western France and the Ardennes forest. Near the end of the war, his unit came on the ruins of a subcamp of Dachau, where dead and living prisoners were indiscriminately piled up for solders to sort through. Salinger spent time in a mental institution at the end of the war, but volunteered for further service in the counterintelligence corps, rounding up for punishment Nazis who had blended back into the civilian population.

Amazingly, Salinger, who died in 2010 at the age of 91, had begun writing “The Catcher in the Rye” before the war, and carried six chapters of the manuscript around during combat. Even more amazingly, he returned from Germany with a war bride who had a Nazi past to the Park Avenue apartment he shared with his Jewish family. The marriage dissolved after about a month.

It’s instructive to imagine “Catcher in the Rye” as a war novel, but perhaps more telling is Salinger’s determination to adhere to the fictional universe he began to create before his service. Clearly, war was a watershed event in his life, but the film provides no real insight into how it affected his work — just food for thought.

Salinger began his self-imposed retreat at the young age of 35. Yet it was hardly the internal exile imagined in popular culture. “Reclusivity is a great public relations device,” novelist E.L. Doctorow notes in one interview. Salinger was fleeing literary celebrity, but his absence fueled the longing of a particular kind of fan — the supplicants who felt entitled to impose themselves on the author’s solitude because of a perceived kinship. This breed tends to view “Catcher in the Rye” as more a prophecy than a novel. One literary stalker recalls Salinger dismissing him with the admonition, “I’m not a counselor, I’m a fiction writer.”

He did trade on his notoriety to attract women with whom he corresponded, notably Joyce Maynard, a promising young writer who wrote a memoir about living with Salinger. More troubling are interviews with Jean Miller, whom Salinger befriended when she was 14 and he 30. It’s hard to resist wondering whether her recollections of their relationship only becoming physical after she was 18 and at her own behest are accurate, or a product of her wish to preserve his reputation. In any case, it’s clear that Salinger had a habit of disposing of women rather brusquely when they had outlived their usefulness to him.

There are only a few scraps of letters and other written material excerpted in the film. However, “Salinger” promises more to come on that score, announcing with great fanfare the existence of five unpublished works by the author set to appear between 2015 and 2020.

★★1/2

TITLE: “Salinger

CREDITS: Directed by Shane Salerno

RATING: PG-13 for scenes of wartime horror and sexual suggestiveness

RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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