Sorry, Shane Salerno: ‘Salinger’ Is Just Bad Biography and Bad Documentary

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Over at Esquire, Salinger director Shane Salerno issued a jeremiad against his “critics.” Like the blowhard he so clearly is, he doesn’t actually cite or quote any of them. So let me do that for him. Complaints, like my own, chiefly focused on the fact that the documentary was so self-serious it verged on self-parody, and thus revealed very little of substance about Salinger. Probably the best representation of that position came from Dana Stevens, at Slate:

Salinger’s mystery is certainly hardy enough to withstand the voyeuristic onslaught of this self-aggrandizing, lurid documentary, which leaves the viewer feeling that we’ve been given a tour of Salinger’s septic tank in hip waders without ever getting to knock on his door and say hello.

There was unison on this point from any number of respected critics, but let’s just focus on Stevens, A.O. Scott (“It does not so much explore the life and times of J. D. Salinger as run his memory and legacy through a spin cycle of hype”), and David Denby (“self-important, redundant, and interminable”). Their complaint was not, to be clear, that the documentary truly sullied any reputation whatsoever. Rather, it was the ridiculous style of the thing that brought down the dismissiveness.

Salerno, however, is way too important to bother responding to his critics’ actual charges. Instead, we get this (inaccurate) paraphrase:

However, there have been several reviews of the film that have said, more or less, “Leave Salinger alone. He wrote beautiful books. That’s all we ever want to know about him.”

Salerno goes on to group himself with “serious” biographers of Oskar Schindler, Thomas Jefferson, and (not even kidding) Martin Luther King Jr., complaining that he was only trying to tell the truth, the whole truth, etc.

My documentary film attempts to do what all good biographical investigation attempts to do, which is to produce a full, balanced, rigorous, and tough-minded portrait of its subject, and in so doing, get at hard truths. The film shows how Salinger connected to all of us only by disconnecting from the world, thereby revealing our complex, flawed humanity.

This is indeed a noble goal, and had it been the one Salerno actually seemed to have in the film as executed, that would be one thing. But what Salerno did is co-author a book and direct a documentary in which, among other things, people wax rhapsodic about the fact that Salinger only had one ball, a subject of interest only to the testicularly obsessed; a hunky actor playing Salinger inexplicably lugs a log up a hill and tosses his manuscript on the floor like a child; and that also repeats what strikes any reasonable person in its audience as a great deal of gossip and hearsay without actually weighing the countervailing evidence.

Many reviews of the book, for example, have noted that if indeed Salinger had only one testicle, we only know it from the testimony of two lovers rather than any legit documents. And the real evidence that Salinger’s first wife was a Gestapo sympathizer boils down to her having enrolled in several different universities and thus maybe-possibly-perhaps having been a spy. Other sources are potentially unreliable narrators.

A real biographer, one interested in the kind of nuance and depth Salerno claims to have achieved, would look at these things in order to try to get closer to his subject. But instead he wastes his time on the re-enactments and the bombastic musical score and an irritating device of projecting images on a movie screen. Salerno clearly hopes that declarations like the following will substitute for careful research and writing:

My film is the first work to open the door to the dark soul of J.D. Salinger and, as such, isn’t harmless; it empties out a myth, and it gets people upset, which is what a good documentary film is supposed to do.

This is almost laughably inaccurate; if anybody broke the silence on the dark night of Salinger’s soul, it was Joyce Maynard, and she did that in 1998. Since then everybody’s been pretty skeptical about the myth. The documentary isn’t really upsetting because it reveals that a great man did bad things; it’s upsetting because it presents that in the crassest way possible. Someone, someday, might make the great Salinger movie. But this sure as hell wasn’t it.