In my previous post I listed 2013’s biggest stinkers — but I saved two of the most egregious entries in the dud category: Austenland and Salinger, two assignments that left me wondering if mainstream American filmmakers aren’t fundamentally ill-equipped, if not hapless when it comes to dealing with literature. (On the indie front, John Krokidas’ drama Kill Your Darlings showed more artistic ambition in portraying the college days of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but even there I was left wanting more.) It may be that films aimed at a mass audience in the U.S. are just too self-conscious about using literature as their subject matter.
In contrast, to cite the most obvious recent example from abroad, consider how Abdellatif Kechiche is able to write and stage credible scenes where teenagers discuss the French author Marivaux in Blue Is the Warmest Color. These scenes show no insecurity or defensiveness, and they don’t play as pretentious, either. The movie also gracefully incorporates Mariviaux’s novel La vie de Marianne into its adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Blue Is a Warm Color.
First up, in the dog days of summer 2013 there was Austenland, directed by first-timer Jerusha Hess (previously the co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre) and adapted from a novel by Shannon Hale. There was the germ of a good satirical premise here — how tourists in England seem to be interested only in a theme-park version of that country. But by making the heroine played by Keri Russell a study in childlike arrested development — this is a woman in her 30s fixated on her life-size cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy — any larger point becomes muddled.
The surprisingly witless script here showed little inclination to consider the possibility that Jane Austen’s novels could offer more than a superficial fantasy. Instead, as if to reassure moviegoers put off by literary culture, nearly every scene is capped with a vulgar gag. A story that starts out as a heavy-handed satire of rom-com fantasies eventually succumbs to rom-com cliches, and Hess is at a loss for how to balance cynicism, crass humor and heartfelt romance.
Factor in cinematography that was an eyesore, as if the DP had it in for poor Keri Russell, and you have a movie that was an affront to the eye and the ear.
But the bigger offender of 2013, arriving a couple weeks after Austenland, was Shane Salerno’s Salinger. In one sense, this ponderous documentary about the life of author J.D. Salinger — a strange hybrid of fawning hero worship and tabloid-style character assassination — provided me with one of 2013’s most novel experiences at the movies: rarely have I seen a film where every single creative decision led me to speculate that the filmmaker is a complete idiot.
Salinger frequently plays as if an impressionable ninth grader, deep in the thrall of Catcher in the Rye and with little exposure to real life or other writers, had been given the means to make a film about his literary idol. The tone is overblown from the get-go, leaving little doubt that Salerno (screenwriter of Armageddon, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, and Avatar 4, coming in 2018) considers Salinger to be a pivotal figure of 20th-century culture.
Throughout, the score is so hectoring and bombastic as to make any of John Williams’ recent outings for Steven Spielberg seem like an exercise in minimalism by comparison. But as overwrought as the account of Salinger’s early years is, it’s just the build-up to the way the movie portrays the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, a sequence that is a monument of kitsch.
It’s telling how Salerno spends little time trying to situate Salinger in 20th-century literary culture: there’s no attempt to place him in the context of say, his contemporaries John Updike or Norman Mailer. The movie features innumerable talking heads, both famous and not, gushing about what Catcher in the Rye meant to them as teenagers, but it never asks whether the book speaks to people as adults. E.L. Doctorow appears on screen long enough to deliver the droll observation that becoming a recluse is a good P.R. strategy, but he then disappears. I was left with the impression that Salerno had no idea how to process a skeptical or even measured take on Salinger’s career.
The question is raised whether Salinger’s hermetic lifestyle in Corning, New Hampshire eventually took a toll on his writing — whether the stories didn’t start to become repetitive, stuck in a particular moment, and out of touch with the real world — only to be left hanging; Salerno takes it for granted that Salinger’s yet-to-be-published work consists of nothing but masterpieces that will rock the world just like Catcher in the Rye did. (The way he films the unpublished manuscripts sitting in a vault is like something out of a Geraldo Rivera special.)
Given the prevailing numbskull–paparazzo mindset of the movie, it’s not surprising that Salinger’s work interests Salerno less than poring over the details of his idol’s private life. The film acts as if it’s some kind of devastating insight to divulge that Salinger was fixated on young women. (A middle-aged man drawn to women decades younger than him — OH MY GOD.) This isn’t exactly news, of course, but Salerno is nevertheless happy to give Joyce Maynard plenty of screen time to recount her affair — one more time! — with Salinger in exhaustive detail. She was a precocious 18, he was 53; you might not be shocked to learn that this mismatch didn’t last long, but Salerno brings no skepticism, or worldliness to the subject matter.
The other big revelation, also covered at length, is that Salinger was a lousy dad, and was estranged from his kids when they grew up. An artist who neglects his children in favor of his work — can you believe it?
It’s possible to discern a counter-narrative to the melodramatic portrait that Salerno renders here. We learn in passing that Salinger was a man who enjoyed attending local fairs and dropping in on his neighbors. If stopped by curiosity seekers and kooks who came looking for Salinger, residents of Corning would claim not to know where the author lived. You might think this was basic decency, and not something suspect.
It’s not hard to infer from these asides that Salinger might have enjoyed ordinary interactions with other townspeople precisely because in those contexts, no one cared about his literary repute, and he could just be an average citizen. But Salerno would rather obsess over the presumed freakishness of a man who turned his back on celebrity, as if Salinger must have had some secret reason for holing up in New Hampshire all those years. In fact, the reason seems patently obvious — he was trying to steer clear of the Shane Salernos of the world.
The indefatigable Salerno has also co-authored a massive biography about Salinger, published last fall to coincide with the documentary, though “oral history” might be a kinder way to describe the 720-page assembly of quotes, notes and pop psychology that is Salinger, the book. Amazingly enough, Salerno is also talking about making a biopic of Salinger, which makes me wonder how many years it will take for Salinger’s literary reputation to break free of Salerno’s clammy grasp.
Anyone with the stomach for prolonged punishment can catch an extended director’s cut of Salinger, with 15 more minutes (for a whopping 135 minutes total), on PBS’ American Masters series on January 21st. Click here for more info.
But don’t take my word for it — The Paris Review has come up with a drinking game to help you make it through the experience of watching Salinger. Click here to read the priceless instructions.