Shane Salerno's documentary Salinger -- a biographical profile of reclusive Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger -- is an emotionally stirring and affecting work, albeit a flawed one. The subject made headlines as America's most famous hermetic writer, the Howard Hughes of literature. In response to the massive cult following that blossomed around him in the wake of Catcher, the belletrist barricaded himself within a stone bunker in New Hampshire, refused to emerge for days or weeks at a time, and eschewed the publication of new work for more than five decades (although apparently he never stopped writing). He made himself inaccessible to his legions of fans and occasional biographers, some of whom sought him out in New England; they hoped to find a soul mate who understood their dysfunctions and neuroses toward the world, but instead encountered a crabby, hostile recluse. Salinger's almost sociopathic insistence on privacy gave Salerno his most daunting hurdle when approaching this project. Couple that with the apparent unwillingness of Salinger's children to talk to Salerno and you begin to realize what a high bar the documentarian set for himself, and why the film took ten years from inception to completion.
With all of that in mind, it's refreshing to observe the degree to which the whole documentary succeeds. In a short amount of time, Salerno breaks through the impenetrability of Salinger himself with an organic, trenchant interpretation of the author's psyche. The writer/director etches out a viable portrait of an emotionally fragile man wounded by former girlfriend Oona O'Neill's romantic betrayal of him and internally ripped to pieces by the horrors he confronted in the Second World War, particularly the atrocities of the Dachau concentration camp. We learn that Salinger spent years struggling to readjust to the mundanity of postwar life in the U.S., and we can fill in the blanks from there. With these events as a sort of haunting expositional prelude, even those who have never read Catcher in the Rye will begin to observe how the strange course of the author's life grew out of his own belief -- like his literary hero Holden Caulfield's -- that our society is diseased in its phoniness, and the only rational solution is to escape into oneself. Salerno also gives us the impression that Salinger found, in the fictional universes that he spun, the possibility for structural perfection, order, and sanity that evaded him in the real world. As one interviewee notes, this also explains Salinger's disturbing predilection for teenage girls -- young women who hadn't yet fully developed their personalities and adult autonomy, and who could still be molded, influenced, and guided by an iron will.
The effectiveness of the picture can be traced, in part, to Salerno's refusal to lay out the profile in a journeyman manner using a chronological structure; true to the eccentricities of his subject, he takes an offbeat, alinear approach, jumping back and forth to different points in Salinger's life. The result is at first teasingly ambiguous, then eerie as an image begins to appear between the lines, a sort of ghostly photographic negative of Salinger. This view may or may not have a verisimilitude with Salinger himself, but it feels persuasive within the context of the film. Less satisfying are the documentary's gratuitous cameos by people who have no business turning up in this project, and who seem included merely to give the motion picture a wide berth at the box office -- such as Danny DeVito, Judd Apatow, and Edward Norton. More welcome and giving the material significant weight are appearances by Salinger's contemporaries, such as John Guare and the late Gore Vidal. One wishes that Salerno had also secured the involvement of Joan Didion and the late John Updike, two of Salinger's most astringent and vocal critics.
The documentary's most beguiling sequence is a long reminiscence by author Joyce Maynard, who at age 19 began receiving smitten letters from Salinger, then struck up a complicated live-in love affair with the man (who was 35 years her senior). The young and naive Maynard ran headfirst into the author's dark side, encountering stark rejection and heartbreak for reasons she was ill-equipped to understand. The passages that include Maynard offset much of the surrounding adulation of Salinger by opening an uncanny window into a highly disturbing and long-hidden part of the writer's life.
Salerno stumbles somewhat with his presentation, which grows a bit rockier than one would like; he relies to some degree on reenactments, although they are professionally directed, lit, and framed, and distant enough from actual dramatic performances that they feel relatively unobtrusive. He also repeatedly cuts to the same still images over and over again, which is a tiny bit irritating; for a time, you begin to feel like you're watching one of those cable-grade Biography Channel profiles of a Hollywood celebrity. Admittedly, this was probably attributable to the fact that a limited number of photographs of Salinger exist in the public sphere. So that may or may not be a fair criticism; when you're profiling a recluse, your options are limited.
The film is also overlong -- it runs a full two hours -- and one wishes that Salerno had edited it more tightly and thoughtfully. There are times when the image sequencing could be stronger. There is also a sequence exploring the "fallout" from Catcher in the Rye that feels poorly handled: Salerno discusses the book's influence on celebrity stalkers John Hinckley Jr. (Ronald Reagan), Mark David Chapman (John Lennon), and Robert John Bardo (Rebecca Schaeffer), and this either needed to be truncated or more fluidly integrated into the surrounding material, with clearer speculations on Salinger's feelings about the novel's negative ramifications and a more cogent argument about how the book may have inspired such ghastly acts. The fact that Salerno interpolated archival comments by the repugnant Chapman isn't simply in poor taste, it's close to inexcusable.
Still, with all of these caveats aside, this is a surprisingly touching and revealing account that gets to the heart of its subject with remarkable efficiency. It would be unfortunate if the documentary itself gets drowned out by the excessive ballyhoo surrounding its prerelease publicity.