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Telluride Review: Salinger


Who hasn’t been captivated at one time or another by J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, one of the greatest American novels ever written. Probably we shouldn’t need to know much about the genius behind the book because, as the genius himself admits, the work should speak for itself. And indeed, Catcher in the Rye has spoken to many for decades, in ways good and bad. Is it Salinger’s fault that so many crazies identify with Holden Caufield’s shunning of the adult world? Or was he merely tapping into the modern American psyche post WWII? Do young, smart, white men feel isolated by what the world has become and do they find an ally in Holden?

The new doc, called simply Salinger, had its premiere at Telluride this morning. Director Shane Salerno had been working on the film for ten years. Keeping close wraps on the information contained in the film (based on the book by David Shields and Salreno was of utmost importance but all of that rolled out today. So fresh was much of this news to the audience that Joyce Maynard (here for Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, upon which her novel is based), who attended the screening, had mascara smeared under her eyes from tears she shed. Later, after the screening and in the lobby, Maynard said that over the past twenty years not a day has gone by that she hasn’t thought of Salinger.

The reason for this impact is that the documentary delves not just into Salinger’s life in World War II, but into his romantic life as well. He wrote to Maynard when she was a newly discovered hopeful young writer. But her little girl’s big eyes and her open, unselfconscious personality drew him to her. She ended up moving in with him when she was 19 and he was 54. Like most of the women in Salinger’s life, either he kicked them out or they left, Maynard soon was ejected from Salinger’s home. She was identified by TIME magazine as the young girl Salinger was living with and it embarrassed the author that the public now knew of his predilection for very young women.

Maynard found out, at some point, how many women were in Salinger’s life, even during the time they were together, which prompted her to try to auction off his letters. But they were bought privately and returned to Salinger. It is a very sad story, and one that weighs particularly hard on Maynard because she felt as exploited by her relationship with him as he felt by her trying to sell the letters he’d written her.

The Salinger doc details his relationships — some of them very strange. But it also goes into his wartime experiences, how it led to a nervous breakdown when he was fighting overseas. He was there on D-Day. From the looks of it, he never recovered from that experience. Being a sensitive, brilliant man, the war took a major toll. Though he wrote exceptional works during and after, he was never quite the same, or even anywhere near approaching “normal,” whatever that means.

In addition to the rare and never-before-seen photos and footage of Salinger, there are interviews with many admirers of the writer including Tom Wolf, Judd Apatow, Tony Bill, John Cusack, Ed Norton, Gore Vidal, ex-girlfriends and family members.

Salinger is a remarkable juxtaposition of how one book can have such a powerful impact on people all over the world and at the same time offer a portrait of man who was clearly suffering from major mental problems and PTSD brought about what he saw during the war. As Salerno said, the war made the writer but broke the man.

Not all of us are entirely capable of living out our lives the way our culture dictates. Advertising and television tell us we’re supposed to behave a certain way, drive a certain car, wear the right clothes, get married, have kids, retire, move to Florida. But in reality, each one of us is unique. Dangling off the edge of normalcy are the Salinger misanthropes who glom onto Holden Caufield and commit terrible acts in his name, most notably, Mark David Chapman who murdered John Lennon.

The legacy Salinger leaves behind includes his legacy as a great writer. This movie adds to that his legacy of using and discarding young women. One of them, Jean Miller, Salinger met in Florida when she was just 14. He courted her for a few days, where they walked up and down the sand. He was 30. They exchanged many letters and eventually Salinger met with Miller when she was of age. She had to make a pass at him to move their relationship forward but she was very much in love with him. They went to the hotel room and he took her virginity. The next day, the relationship was over.

If you’ve ever spent time around 14-year-olds you will understand how such a thing could happen. They live in the moment. As Miller said in the Q&A afterwards, they haven’t yet learned how to be afraid of life and become people to help cope with that fear. To Salinger, it was always a way to dip back into the time in his own life that he understood the world. Adults, he figured, were phonies. The world, an assault. As a young man seeing the burned bodies of the dead during the Holocaust forever altered his impression of this world his teenage self must have once been so hopeful about.

Salinger is a complex portrait of a beloved author that might sometimes seem exploitative. But it is nonetheless the truth as told by people whom Salinger used up and then discarded. It is also the truth about how genius doesn’t always come in a perfect package. You don’t leave the movie hating Salinger. But rather, wishing someone had been able to help him.