the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Salinger (2013)

Arrested Development

“Salinger” is the eponymous documentary about the late American cult writer directed by Shane Salerno. The film is conventional in structure featuring a series of talking heads, archival footage and re-enactments. There is an odd hagiographic bombast undercut by a tabloid sensationalism. The film relishes the dirty details such as inappropriate relationships and mean spirited treatment of loved ones. At the same time counters this by building the great artist myth by treating the bulk of his work as hallowed texts; with more jewels emerging from the grave. The climax has a screen black with large white letters. They carefully spell out the great mysteries the artist’s estate will reveal in the coming decades. This is too important for voice over narration - read the sacred revelations.  Salinger’s last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924”, was received with a collective groan. That has not whetted the appetite of those who have worshiped his small body of work: a few collections of short stories and the novel “The Catcher in the Rye”; all conceived before 1960.  His book became, for the Post WWII generation, a touchstone of teenage angst.  The purpose of this film is to reveal the man behind these mystical creations. Unfortunately it is merely a gossipy collection of facts with little insight into the person or his works.

Perhaps the nadir of the movie comes with the swelling orchestral music during the ‘triumphant’ reception of the much derided novel. One was expecting to see Rocky Balboa at the top of the stairs. The problem is this also marks the withdrawal of the man from the world.  If this was a story of the writer’s career, the music would be appropriate, but for man himself? One can only think of the Saint Teresa  quote: “Answered prayers cause more tears than those that remain unanswered". Incidentally the first two words of Saint Teresa’s aphorism are the title for the unfinished posthumously published manuscript by another unhappy one-book-wonder, Truman Capote.  The film celebrates the fulfillment of Salinger’s lifelong dream: publication in the New Yorker.  The voice over delivers a surface summation of that story which fails to penetrate the most important aspect of the work - it was a collaboration. The man who, heretofore had ended a friendship with a trusted acquaintance over a small editorial error, was amenable to working with the New Yorkers staff to edit this story.  This tale of suicide, with strong tones of misogyny and sexualization of young girls, was where the author ‘found his voice’. That might be true... but is that a good thing? A close reading of ‘Bananafish’ is almost a roadmap to the life that befell Salinger. He didn’t end up blowing his brains out next to his sleeping wife.  He did, however, scar a number of callow young women who had the misfortune of becoming emotionally close. His prime weapon was total abandonment of his would be partner when he was completely convinced he had the upper hand.  Ironically his literary triumphs give rise to the darkest corner of his nature. Unfortunately Salerno is wedded to the notion that success served the man himself. It certainly made a career but what are we to make of the four friends/acquaintances who end their interviews in tears? These are the few brave souls who came forward as Salinger equated public revelations about their friendship as pure betrayal.  There participation is rooted in wanting to comprehend FOR THEMSELVES what had gone so horribly wrong in their interactions. Unfortunately Salinger felt he alone had ownership of any revelations concerning his person.  Celebrities are often faced with  acquaintances who betray confidences for petty goals such as self-aggrandizement.  Oddly many of the brave souls who bear their hearts are looking for answers in the face of Salinger’s harsh banishment. It is sad that the author never drew the distinction between malevolent gossips and exiled friends.

The subject of his isolation is interesting. Gore Vidal sums it up by saying “he isn’t a recluse at all. He chooses where and when he will interact with the public”. This is true and a peak behind the curtain leads to a unsettling bachelor life akin to Jack Nicholson at the end of “Carnal Knowledge”. That character is so afraid of the “fairer sex” the only interaction possible is a scripted encounter with prostitutes. The low point of Salerno’s exploration concerns his relationship with Joyce Maynard. The pretentious alluring 18 year old came to live withe the 54 year old writer. We can forgive a teenager for believing that she would develop a long-lasting love affair with a misanthropic super-star. It is also difficult to judge him as we learn that he had gone through D-Day, the battle of the bulge and the liberation of a concentration camp. But it probably wasn’t as traumatic for him as the unraveling of their relationship. Their break-up occurs in the same setting as ‘Bananafish’, an upscale Florida beach resort hotel. In real life he shoves her in a cab with two 50 dollars bills - coincidentally Nicholson gives his favorite hooker $100 at the end of “Carnal Knowledge” to signal the end of that assignation.  A Freudian tip? The breakup is fueled by his pronouncement he has no interest in children. Note: they are on a trip with his young son and daughter. She has dreams of procreating with the master. Only a teenager would consider mating with someone who had the family instincts of a spider - but once again this poor woman was barely five years from her thirteenth birthday. She also becomes enraged by Salinger’s habit of soliciting many other extremely young woman by mail. She wasn’t so special after all. The contemporary Maynard clearly isn’t over it. She does two separate interviews, in two separate outfits, at two separate times of day, and doubles down on Salinger as CREEP. Unfortunately the screen-time had an inverse connection to her likability as well as his.   But at least she had grounds to be in the film. What are we to make of the interviews of: Martin Sheen, Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack.... I guess Vidal Sassoon and Miley Cyrus were too busy to comment? Incidentally Maynard is the second lover who seems to be given a hasty push to the airport. The first is a poor girl who was courted as fourteen year old; only to be given the hook as a young woman when the affair was consummated. Her grief is palpable despite the passage of many decades. Salerno present these unfortunate romances with the notion that Salinger’s inappropriateness stemmed from the horrors of bearing witness as a soldier. Unfortunately this theory conflicts with other factoids which are presented.

Salerno brags about spending a decade of his time and two million dollars in funds in unlocking the mystery of the sphinx. He channels the most callow Salinger worshipers with moment such as: THIS IS THE ONLY KNOWN PHOTOGRAPH OF THE AUTHOR WRITING ‘CATCHER IN THE RYE’ or THIS IS THE ONLY KNOWN FILM FOOTAGE OF J.D. SALINGER AT WAR. The latter clip, an unremarkable silent few seconds of a young J. D. speaking to a group of women and children, is shown TWICE. Salerno does, however, rise above the photographic gimmickry. He delivers two new biographical facts about the man: the post-battle soldier Salinger spent time in a ward after a mental break and briefly married young Nazi woman, whom he brought back to NYC.  This is fascinating, heretofore not generally known information that does give color to Salinger’s life experience. Unfortunately Salerno misinterprets how this correlates to the man and the body of work.  The filmmaker sees the war as creating a harsher, meaner voice for the author.  This fails to jibe with the fact that the central project seems to remain intact throughout the war march. The pre-war and post-battle Holden Caulfield appear to be the same lost cynical soul.  The most profound aspect of Salinger’s oeuvre is his inability to change. There is no reflection given to his monomaniacal obsession with being a great writer.  Salinger labored over “The Catcher in the Rye” and was continually soliciting editors a the New Yorker WHILE WITNESSING THE MOST PROFOUND MILITARY BATTLES OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR... NOT TO MENTION THE LIBERATION OF A CONCENTRATION CAMP. In other words his high school goal of becoming a literary phenomena remained steadfast.  Nothing could shake that dream. His breakdown, given the carnage he witnessed, was understandable. The notion that this in turn gave birth to a new artistic vision in Salinger is debatable.

The relationship with the young German is also open to a radically different interpretation than Salerno’s notion of the author being magnanimous to his enemies.  His marriage might have been related to his pre-war attachment to Oona O’Neill, THE debutant in NYC. Much is made of the fact that she dumped him for the film icon, Charlie Chaplin.  Oona was, in his social circles, the most desirable woman in the world. His second choice of a  German Nazi refugee might be seen as embracing a mirror image of his first love. Salerno delivers some ham-handed lines about Salinger feeling open- hearted forgiveness of the enemy. The problem with that theory is that contrasts with a life built in complete regard for the personal and not the universal. This is a man obsessed with his standing with the New Yorker, his fictional creations and his infatuation with Oona.  Germans were not his enemies. He spent time in Austria before the war training in the meat import business. There are no revelations of personal hatred of specific nationalities. Germans were merely the enemy of the United States. HIS adversaries were anyone who challenged the notion that he was the greatest living writer in the world. His dad, a merchant who was son of a rabbi, was on the list of those skeptical of Salinger’s genius. He was pushing for him to expand his food import business and had sent him to Austria.  Salerno states he was unsupportive of his son’s literary goals. He appears to be a practical man with a practical world view.  It is doubtful he embraced his German Nazi refugee daughter-in-law. He probably had the same reaction his Rabbi father had when he brought home J.D.’s mother - a CATHOLIC.

The hard work of understanding Salinger relies on closely examining his origins. This is someone who only published work written prior to 1960 and even at that point seemed sealed in his adolescent self. What makes this watch tick? Salerno has some curious facts but fails to connect the dots. There is no underscoring of the degree to which Salinger’s parents marriage, a Jew and a Catholic, would have shaken the social norms of the day. Strangely my parents shared the same religious divide a generation later and things were not simpatico on either side of the family. It created a non- identity in myself of being “both” and “neither” simultaneously.   There is another small detail from one of the still photos which also might signal ‘outsider’ status. The film reports that Salinger had a rich kid background. True... to a point. The return address on one his letters shows him to live at Park Ave IN THE UPPER 90s.  For those unfamiliar with the vagaries of NYC real-estate: Park Ave was developed to cover an open railway bed which leads to Grand Central - a key location in many of Salinger’s works. At 96th street the railroad comes above ground and Spanish Harlem begins. Although living on 94th and Park was prestigious - it was far less desirable than living in the prime residential streets - from 60th thru 86th. Ditto for attending McBurney school which was considered less socially desirable than other more exclusive private schools such as Buckley or Collegiate. In other words he was a rich kid with  a prime view of the really rich kids.

One might see Salinger’s hideous ambition to be THE writer stemming from a sense of being an outlier rather than someone observing his peers. The upper end of Park Avenue might not be Napoleon’s Corsica but the fierceness of Salinger’s will to be an artistic genius begs the question: who was he trying to impress? Salinger, growing up rich, knew exactly what money cannot buy. In order to make his mark he drew on something he felt noone could match, his innate ability to write. That is his life’s work even more than the writing itself: proving himself to his crowd especially the neighbors down the street.  Who else would know the references: the clock at the Biltmore Hotel, Choate, fancy mid-town hotel bars.... in short who reads the New Yorker? The film buys into the notion that he was a troubled loner rebel who cast scorn upon the world at large. In reality: his focus was less diverse, his aims less radical and his confidence more intense. He was out to prove himself in a very specific way to a very specific group of people and he never wavered. Such unnatural dedication to a specific end requires a kind of focus found with monks or zealots. This is where Salinger stands apart. He seems born being on a mission to be an important writer by the ‘right’ people. NOTHING would drive him off course.  The film touches on Salinger’s religious journey explaining that he spent a great deal of time with Eastern religious ideas. Given the fact that he was already familiar with Christianity and Judaism one can see an restless search for truth. It has been reported, not in this film, that he flirted with a many unorthodox faiths and health regimes. Certainly living past the age of ninety speaks well for the diets but his spiritual journey is an open question.  Judging by the witnesses to his life, albeit a very select few, he seems someone who sowed a great deal of torment. This unfortunately extends to his daughter who wrote a critical book about her famous dad. She specifically voiced criticism of the central image from his novel: Holden’s dream of catching wayward children from falling of the cliff near the field of rye. She asked an interesting question: where were the parents who let all those children play near the dangerous cliff?  She saw her father as a negligent parent pretending to be a rescuer of those in his charge. Doubling the misfortune the only son dismissed his sister’s account as fiction. They both might be correct in their varied assessments of their father. It is tragic legacy nonetheless.

The final glitzy reveal about the future treasure trove of Salinger titles that have not yet been published confirms a sad truth about the man and his work: he is entombed in a solipsistic journey. There is going to be a volume of HIS interpretations of some Eastern prayers. There will be a story surrounding his romance with the young German Nazi. Finally there will be extensions of characters and stories from the canon. If Salerno’s revelations are true these carefully crafted works, which will be released in a precisely timed manner of Salinger’s choosing, show that his life experience failed to put dent in his set-piece universe. This world and these characters were all conceived by the author in his late teens and early twenties and remained steadfast. There is one exception. The WW II story will be particularly interesting as it might represent an evolution in story and character development. This affair happened at the end of the war - post the creation of the Glass family and Holden. One hopes that the author’s historic journey was digested in terms of the wider world and not just the privileged upper east side. The fear is that it will be through the lens of an alienated young man looking for truth via a callow young woman -  in other words his claustrophobic adolescent fallback POV will dominate.  It’s difficult to know what will come but the topics and manner seem to reveal the unchanging man putting his force of nature against those smart-ass know-it-all phonies who think they rule the world. My humble guess is that the first two volumes will have strong sales. “Hapworth 16, 1924” is an ominous warning.  We see an artist too wrapped up in his truth. That work is an endless monologue from a character who has more meaning for the author than the reader. Ironically the Salerno film is the kind of second rate hero worship that would seem an anathema to Salinger’s creed of being ‘true’. Actually it’s a perfect fit for as his truth forgot the essential lesson of most major religions. Something along the lines of John Donne’s lines:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main

The irony is that Salinger mistook ‘truth’ for ‘reputation’. Instead of wisdom he seemed to devolve into an angry crank obsessed with the purity of his ‘work’. If that were truth there would be no reason for readers as he would be the arbiter of the work's greatness. But in his case the public was important... not the general public but the Brahmin guardians of artistic merit. All the courting of the literary aristocracy seems to boil down to an unfortunate statement by William Faulkner:

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

In Salinger’s case replace ‘old’ with ‘young’ and you have the essence of his worldview.  It might produce some interesting art - it will no doubt produce an unsympathetic, tormented soul who torments those closest to them. Faulkner had a daughter as well.  As a young woman she begged him to not drink on her birthday. When he did he reprimanded her with:  “Noone remembers Shakespeare’s children”. We can only pray that Jill Faulkner and Margaret Salinger had time to meet in a support group.   Any belief system that values fiction over real relationships is inherently bankrupt; no matter how beautiful the art.  This silly sensationalistic film is in many respects what Salinger feared most - middle brow brush over his valiant life’s work. In Salinger’s mind Salerno might even rank with the unfortunate mentally unbalanced people who have used “Catcher in the Rye” as a manifesto to kill. The film points to a number of these crazies including John Lennon’s assassin. Ironically those pathetic souls fell into the same trap as their beloved author: they replaced  real human beings with an ideology.  Once you extinguish humanity, the world becomes a small desperate, lonely place. As Kurt Cobain put it: “I'm so happy. Cause today I found my friends. They're in my head.” He also ended up having a perfect day for a bananafish.

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