Altered states: Which 'Salinger' documentary did you see?

Uneven Shane Salerno biopic edited in midst of limited release. Photo: AP/Story Factory/Paul Fitzgerald

WASHINGTON, September 30, 2013 – After the extensive ballyhoo barrage surrounding the release of Shane Salerno’s new documentary on the live and mysterious times of reclusive American author J.D. Salinger, the film’s slow-moving limited theatrical release has frustrated longtime fans who had hoped to see it sometime before the next century.

Now, confusing matters further, we learned just this weekend that some of “Salinger’s” footage has been revised, augmented, or deleted which simply adds to the confusion and controversy.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Film-makers Harvey Weinstein and Shane Salerno announced they were making the changes to their film in a press release,” billing it as a “special edition.” Hollywood has never taken a back seat to Washington when it comes to being a “spin city,” and this is our latest proof.

AP file photo of controversial novelist J. D. Salinger.

The Hollywood Reporter news-flash leads inquiring minds to pose a couple of key questions: if you happened to catch this elusive film at your local multiplex or art-house, which version did you see? And will the film be revised yet again before making its appearance on PBS, which will allegedly occur in January?

Word is that the filmmakers cut thirteen minutes from the original release of “Salinger” earlier this month, a version that ran pretty much exclusively in New York City and LA until roughly September 20 with the transparent aim of giving privileged New York and Left Coast critics their own first cut at the film.

SEE RELATED: J. D. Salinger film, biography, scheduled to debut in September

In the main, those critics were not impressed. Thus the revisions, even as “Salinger” began to go into a wider but still limited release. In addition to the thirteen minutes that tumbled to the cutting room floor, eight new minutes of footage were added back in, including more interview footage with aging writerly prima donna Joyce Maynard who enjoyed a May-December dalliance with the middle-aged author when she was 18.

The Weinstein’s revisionary tactics likely helped generate a bit more publicity for a film whose buzz was already dying out due to its lack of availability on screens outside of the usual cognoscenti haunts.

The whole strange scene reminds us of the cynical “Microsoft Way,” in which new versions of the company’s Windows OS and/or its latest software apps are released before their time. The idea, apparently, is to start generating cash flow, cynically leaving it to hapless early adopters to effectively beta-test the software. It looks like the Weinsteins are employing the same exploitative tactic to recoup some of their costs as they improve the film for its real target, that January appearance on PBS.

We ourselves managed to catch “Salinger” last week, after being surprised to discover it was playing, without any advance fanfare, at our local Reston, Virginia Bow-Tie multiplex theater. Given this weekend’s news, we suspect we saw the film’s original cut, although it’s a bit difficult to ascertain.

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In its favor, the Salerno-Weinstein “Salinger” can truly bill itself as a “comprehensive study” of Salinger’s life, career, and times.

After quickly sketching out the budding author’s early years, the film focuses primarily on key events that occurred during his tumultuous tour of duty in the European Theater of World War II; his brief bohemian tour of New York literary life up to and just past his celebrity status as author of “Catcher in the Rye”; his retreat into seclusion during his roughly 15-year publishing relationship with The New Yorker; and his virtual disappearance into rural New Hampshire during which he had apparently ceased to write forever.

This 1953 photo of J.D. Salinger in Cornish, N.H., with Emily Maxwell, the wife of his close friend William Maxwell. (AP file)

Unfortunately, even though this secretive and litigious author finally departed this earthly sphere in 2010 at the age of 91, this overhyped biopic doesn’t shed a great deal of new light on its enigmatic subject.

Granted, there’s “never before seen” footage of Salinger as a WWII GI, plus a few associated photos from the same period. But, as is so often the case in the kind of shoddy though marginally intriguing faux science and bio features that have become a staple on the Discovery, History and Science cable TV channels, key footage is inserted again and again to fill voiceover space.

This tactic is obviously employed on cable to limit the cost of production by re-using public domain or already-paid-for footage again and again. That may be the case, at least in part, in this film as well. Just as likely, however, there’s still not enough in the way of footage or stills to illustrate the narrative, so the filmmakers simply hit the recycle bin.

Salinger in time of war. Credits listed in above photo.

Another problem with this film is also something common in the usual low production values of the Discovery family of channels. A substantial amount of Salinger is backed by obnoxious, overly loud, and entirely inappropriate generic cuts of martial music, the kind you might expect in a “Transformers” sequel. The almost-constant musical bombast might have been occasionally appropriate, particularly during the moments of stock black-and-white film footage meant to provide the over all flavor of the WW II European conflict.

We’d read one or two critics who’d trashed the soundtrack before we saw the film. After seeing it, we’d regard their comments as mild compared to our reaction. The booming, almost entirely inappropriate music at times nearly drowned out the voiceover, so badly was it calibrated to the over all sound mix.

To get a flavor of what we’re discussing, check out the film’s original trailer below which provides several examples of the musical overkill we’re talking about:

We have read that all this was toned down somewhat in the allegedly current release of the film. But, as we have little idea as to which version we saw, we have no exact way of telling whether the latest version is improved or not. Frankly, if they lost the musical soundtrack altogether, it wouldn’t be much of a loss and might even help the over all tone of the film to seem as serious as it clearly intends to be.

The real problem with this documentary is that it tends to miss two of the key points it has actually either documented or strongly supported, an astonishing lapse considering the time and effort that went into the product.

In the first place, while extensively documenting Salinger’s almost pathological sexual pursuit of young women, they never quite put two and two together in this area even though they get tantalizingly close to a theory.

Salinger would, over many years, find himself attracted to many a teenage girl. But there is no evidence that he was a pederast. Rather, he was scrupulously legal about his sexual preferences, either actively bedding young women who appealed to him but were at least over the statutory limit of 18 years of age; or establishing friendships with young women less than that age, but keeping the friendship strictly platonic until they had achieved the appropriate legal milestone.

The serial affairs would generally not be of significant duration. At the least sign of physical or intellectual independence on the part of his youthful mistresses, the author would summarily and permanently terminate the relationship and exile the generally bewildered young woman forever, either with a cryptic explanation or no explanation at all.

Due to her own effective PR machine over the years, author Joyce Maynard has proved the most prominent of Salinger’s extra-marital dalliances as well as the one most willing to go on the record about it. That is, at least in part, why she’s given a fair amount of interview footage in both versions of Salerno’s film. She remains irritatingly self-centered today even as she zeroes in on her upcoming 60th birthday. But her remarkable candor and insights into Salinger his personality, and his writing habits still provide rare, key insights into his character generally not available elsewhere.

1998 AP photo of author Joyce Maynard who had an affair with J.D. Salinger when she was 18.

Chief among these insights is Maynard’s corroboration of what has long been regarded by many as a myth—the notion that Salinger always kept writing, even though none of this alleged output has seen the light of day or publication since the mid 1960s.

Salinger’s seemingly endless series of affairs with younger women and his abrupt termination of the same indicate a curious and interesting pathology. Salinger was clearly a man and an artist who embraced and was possessed by an entirely bizarre vision of the opposite sex. Young, innocent women clearly functioned as serial manifestations of his Muse. But the moment that innocent was lost, the moment a current Muse achieved any manner of female self-awareness, aka full adulthood, her flower faded and she was banished.

In the end, most authors of any note tend to be selfish, strange, or psychologically troubled in one sense or another. In Salinger’s carefully constructed writerly universe, he required sexual relations with a Muse just old enough to avoid issues with the Mann Act but one who had not yet achieved the kind of self-actualization that would release her innocence or perhaps even transform her into a competitor. For a man so experienced in the world itself, particularly during his experiences as an America GI, this kind of arrested adolescence is puzzling, but it’s clearly there and deserves deeper exploration.

Another key element only touched upon by the filmmakers is perhaps even more important: Salinger’s off and on, lifetime involvement with Vedanta. After relocating to New Hampshire in the early 1950s after “Catcher” had instantly established his reputation as a superbly gifted writer, Salinger began to be influenced ever more strongly by the principles associated with the Vedantic expression of karma yoga, making periodic pilgrimages and corresponding with a Canadian teacher and practitioner over many years.

On a spiritual plane, Salinger apparently adopted, over time, a key element of karma yoga teachings, namely that every activity in one’s life, from washing the dishes to creating works of fiction for that matter, can be offered as a prayer or meditation that leads one closer to the divine. Even more importantly, in order to achieve greater perfection and unity with the divine, one must strive to regard one’s own life-prayer accomplishments not as evidence of one’s power and fame. Rather, achievements must be considered instead as steps toward ultimately unity with divinity and thus regarded with great humility.

For whatever reasons—director Salerno et. al. seem to regard Salinger’s increasing isolation and shunning of public contact as some flavor or another of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—Salinger’s gradual and complete withdrawal from public life seem entirely consistent with his embrace of Vedantic principles, including his aversion to interviews, speaking engagements and public appearances; in short, anything that could conceivably have anything to do with the kind of overweening pride that the Greeks called hubris.

“Salinger” director Shane Salerno in a recent AP photo.

And there is ample evidence for this in the remainder of Salinger’s published writings, which dropped Holden Caulfield’s centrality and instead focused on the peculiarly cerebral and at times annoyingly self-centered Glass family. These perpetual “seekers” gradually took over Salinger’s world right up to the point where he ceased to share his writings with the public.

The film’s much-hyped claim that many of Salinger’s hitherto hidden post-1965 writings would begin publication between the years 2015 and 2020, would, if true, either prove or disprove what is actually a likely thesis. By presumably producing his best work while never getting credit for it during his time on earth, Salinger could very well have determined this would be the best way to achieve divine unity in the afterlife.

Further, allowing these allegedly “great” works to be released after his death, the author could be regarded as continuing his good works posthumously, influencing society for the better even after he had ceased to be.

Of course, spiritual meanderings like this are difficult for contemporary writers, scholars and everyday readers to grasp, let alone spend time with in our short attention span world. But Salinger’s presumed path toward his mystical salvation, if backed by his mysterious and as yet unknown body of post-1965 work, could prove enlightening if some of this work really does begin to see print in 2015 and beyond.

In a way, it’s not surprising that Salerno chose not to explore this element very deeply. These ideas, notions, and meditations are more effective and meaningful when read and preached. They are not compelling material for treatment on film. Then again, spiritual speculation can bog down even a documentary’s narrative line, so perhaps this was a wise call. We’ll have to read the new book associated with this film to find out.

“Salinger” is, in many ways, an interesting film with a fairly strong narrative line that’s diminished by its nonsensically militant score and by the obvious interpolation of various movie stars’ and writers observations that give it some marquee value but add very little to the actual story of this utterly strange author. But it’s likely the best we’ll get for now, and for what it is, shedding light as it does on at least some previously hidden aspects of Salinger’s life, it’s certainly better than the piecemeal narratives we’ve had thus far.

The film gets an A for effort from us, but only a gentleman’s C for inventiveness and narrative and historical worth. If you’re a lover of books and/or an English major, by all means try to find the film before it vanishes without a trace. Otherwise, just watch your PBS listing after January 1 and try to catch it for free on HDTV.

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17



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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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