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Reviewing ‘Salinger’ the film

One of the most difficult burdens of each person’s youth is the need to determine to what degree he or she is an individual, and to what degree he or she is an element of society as a whole. Most of us end up being surprised to the answer to that dilemma.

For many people, the answer to that was found when they read the novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger. That novel recounts the thoughts and the actions of a young man of high school age, as he comes up against situations in which he cannot convince himself to behave as society expects, and in which sometimes he chooses wisely, but often he makes what turns out to be the wrong decisions, for his own good.

Recently a documentary film, simply named “Salinger” was released by filmmaker Shane Salerno, which examines the life of the author who published only that one novel and a few short stories and novellas before sending himself into exile for more than half his life, to a compound, down a dirt road from the tiny town of Cornish, N.H., located among the White Mountains, along the banks of the Connecticut River, a strong stone’s throw from the border of Vermont.

When Salinger died, of natural causes at age 91, in 2010, the world was still fascinated by him. Decades after he published his last writings, travelers came from around the world to park on the Main Street of Cornish and try to catch the author when he made a rare venture into town, to buy groceries or to pick up his mail. Although pages upon pages have been written about how the man became a recluse, in fact, he often stopped and chatted with these people, although he virtually always resisted any attempt to pry into his private doings.

Tens of thousands of people have written essays about how “Catcher” has changed their lives. Most people have felt improved by their brush with Salinger’s novel, but a few, including the murderers of John Lennon and actress Rebecca Shaeffer, and the man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, have felt inspired to commit their crimes by those same few pages of fiction.

I recently drove to Fredonia, through a downpour of nearly Biblical proportions to watch “Salinger,” and I’d like to react to the film for you. Then, since there is some room left over, I’d like to share with you another contemporary film which I liked very much: “The Way, Way Back,” from 2013, by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

“SALINGER” THE FILM

Filmmaker Salerno is obviously very interested in the life and the writing of J.D. Salinger, but although he has written a very lengthy biography of the author, as well as having made this film, it is clear that he doesn’t yet know what to make of what he has learned.

The film begins with a photographer who was hired by national news magazines to go to Cornish and to stake out sites where the author was known to frequent. He eventually gets a series of photos of an elderly Salinger, walking out of a post office. If you’ve read Salinger’s writings, and you’re desperate to know the reality behind his creativity, that is earth shattering news, yet, in fact, it’s kind of ordinary. A man picks up his mail.

Most of us tend to live with the belief that people want fame and fortune. When someone achieves those things, then places himself in an obscure place and refuses to respond to demands for interviews and awards, it gets our attention.

In terms of the facts of Salinger’s life, Salerno’s film is full of useful facts. Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City, the son of a Jewish father who became wealthy selling kosher cheeses and meats, and an Irish-American mother, who changed her name from Mary to Miriam to better fit into her husband’s family. People who knew him well, called him Jerry.

The writer’s family had money, which enabled him to write what he wanted and to wait patiently for the magazines and the publishers which he wanted. It also gave him the freedom to turn down big sums which he was offered for the film rights to his works and which hoped to inspire him to write a follow-up to “The Catcher in the Rye,” or his other works.

Salinger’s confusion – that he had the things like money and connections with the beautiful people which many people lived and died to obtain, and he didn’t particularly value them – seems to be the driving force behind both his writing and his withdrawal to spend more than half his life on a mountainside in New England.

When World War II broke out, he was drafted out of a posh, Park Avenue life, into the infantry, and slogged his way through three of the bloodiest and most destructive battles ever fought, including the landings in Normandy, on the famed D-Day. The film claims that he charged from a landing craft onto Utah Beach, wearing a backpack, in which more than 70 handwritten pages of “Catcher” were stashed.

One of the weakest elements of the film is the fact that Salerno has found an actor who bears a strong physical resemblance to the young Salinger, and he sometimes dramatizes the facts of the writer’s life. It was often unclear if we were seeing rare footage of the man’s actual life, or whether we were seeing a contemporary actor taking a guess at what Salinger would have done. There is an important difference there.

Because he had a gift for languages, Salinger was assigned to interview captured Germans and civilians and to use the information he got from them to help advise the advancing army of useful information such as where snipers might be hiding, which buildings might be booby trapped, and the like. We understand the horrible pressures on the young man that he must ask the right questions and interpret correctly whether the answers he has gotten are dependable, because the lives of his friends and countrymen depend upon it.

We also grasp the horrors he faced when he entered a sub-camp of the Dachau Concentration Camp and had to walk through the dead and hideously dying members of his own religion. No wonder that he suffered a nervous breakdown and needed to be hospitalized in the closing days of the war.

It seemed to me that the filmmaker was entirely too focused on the writer’s three wives and the young women with whom he engaged in relationships of varying degrees of intensity. It does seem true that Salinger seemed to be interested in women who were considerably younger than he was, but the film allows a few of the women to drone on and on without telling us anything about the man, beyond that once he had married them or moved them into his isolated compound on the hillside, he often went to the writing shed on his property and went for long periods without seeing or speaking with them.

The most interesting element of the film comes at the very end, when the film lists a number of books of various types which Salinger allegedly wrote in the more than 40 years between his last published work and his death. Between 2015 and 2020, according to the film, we can expect to see a sizable number of new Salinger works published.

The filmmaker has succeeded in getting a number of interesting people to give their opinions of things which Salinger did. These include Gore Vidal, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Guare, Martin Sheen, John Cusack and others. There are extensive interviews with people who knew the author, and while he gives us their names, he usually doesn’t tell us who they are or how they knew Salinger, at least until well into the film, if ever.

He interviews Salinger’s only daughter, who wrote a book about her father, and he doesn’t interview the writer’s only son, who gave interviews in which he claimed that his sister’s book was a complete misrepresentation. Assuming that the son refused to be interviewed, he could at least have asked the daughter to respond to her brother’s accusations, but he doesn’t.

I guess my overwhelming response to the film was that it covered a great deal of interesting and important material, but it could have dealt with them much better, and that is bitterly frustrating.

Would I recommend that you watch Salinger? If you care about the subject, I do recommend it, but be prepared, for every bit of enlightenment, there is a considerable amount of frustration. The film is not yet released for home viewing, although online sellers of DVDs show photos of the film’s cover, which is a solid red page, with plain gold letters, like the best-known version of “Catcher in the Rye.” It’s possible to order a copy be mailed to you the first day it’s available for sale for $22.48.

You can order the printed biography of Salinger by Salerno and co-author David Shields. The best price I found was $12.70 for a hardbound copy. No ISBN number is available, that I could find.

THE WAY, WAY BACK

They say that the most important ingredient, in the making of a successful writer, is an unhappy childhood.

One of the most recent entries in the “How an unhappy childhood could be redeemed by the proper treatment” genre is “The Way, Way Back,” by filmmakers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

The protagonist is a 14-year-old boy, named Duncan. We quickly learn that Duncan’s parents have divorced, and his father has moved to San Diego, with his much younger girlfriend. As the film begins, Duncan is riding in an old-fashioned station wagon, driven by his mother’s new boyfriend. His mother is riding in the front with her boyfriend. The traditional back seat is occupied by the boyfriend’s nubile young daughter, who scornfully insists upon the entire seat.

Duncan is in the third, rear-facing seat, which has traditionally been called “the way, way backseat.” Someone sitting there is typically isolated from the people in the rest of the vehicle, and that is exactly the point. The planned blended family is driving to the beach house, owned by Mother’s boyfriend. The first words out of the boyfriend’s mouth is the demand that Duncan evaluate himself, on a scale of one to 10. He tries not to participate, but the man persists until he blurts out “Maybe a six.”

The boyfriend then counters that he would rate Duncan as a three, because he isn’t willing to “Put himself out there.” Those first few moments of the film teach us Duncan’s negative attitude toward this whole family affair, the justifiable reasons for that attitude, the fact that Mom isn’t going to be an ally in her son’s struggles, the negative effect of the daughter, and the basic cruelty and shallowness of Mom’s boyfriend. It’s a great movie moment.

Duncan is played by young Canadian actor Liam James. Although the 17-year-old James has 13 entries in the Internet Media Database, he is probably best known for playing lead character Shawn Spencer as a boy, in the television series “Psych.”

The success of the film is largely reliant on the excellent cast. Duncan’s mother is played by Toni Collette. Her boyfriend is Steve Carrell, an actor who traditionally has played bumbling guys who own the audience’s sympathy from the beginnings of his many films, so his portrayal as this arrogant, self-involved jerk demonstrates some real reaching as an actor.

Eventually, just when Duncan is on the verge of losing his mind to boredom and humiliation, he finds an old bicycle, intended for a little girl, in a shed, and rides off in hope of finding his own version of the Emerald City. He finds a water park, with a wide variety of sliding, drenching, fun-looking rides. The park is run by Owen, a goofy, immature man-child, portrayed by Sam Rockwell. Sensing Duncan’s need for a non-painful environment, Owen hires him to do odd jobs around the park.

Naturally being responsible, even when Owen isn’t responsible, teaches Duncan to respect himself, and once he has achieved that, he forces his mother to fulfill her responsibilities. There isn’t a lot of violence, and except for some adult language, this would make the film an excellent choice for family viewing. About five minutes into watching it, it’s possible to guess how it’s going to end, but the characters are interesting, there are some surprise events, and it makes for enjoyable entertainment.

“The Way, Way Back” entered the theaters in July of 2013, and was released on DVD about a week ago. It’s rated PG-13.