Shane Salerno’s much-hyped J.D. Salinger documentary Salinger starts off promisingly enough – a man sits in his car staring at a small post office with a long-lens camera in his hand, narrating a story about the last time he sat in his car staring at a small post office with a long-lens camera in his hand (well, presumably it’s the last time he did this). Photographer Michael McDermott leads off the film with a story about how, in 1979, he traveled to New Hampshire with one aim and one assignment – photograph the elusive Salinger for Newsweek. His only tip? The author receives his mail at a local post office, just across the state line, in tiny Windsor, Vermont. McDermott waited outside the post office for hours, days, until he finally saw the man, ultimately capturing one of the first known photographs of the extremely private writer in the latter portion of his life.
For the last half of his life, Salinger lived in Cornish, New Hampshire, a somewhat remote, somewhat isolated area of the state, just across the Connecticut River from Vermont. His choice of residence should have made it plain – don’t come here, I don’t want you here – but his decision was never fully honored by both his adoring public and newshounds looking for a story. The film is rife with arguments about whether or not Salinger was a true recluse – one talking head compares him to Howard Hughes while another refutes the claim simply because Salinger did plenty of non-recluse-like things, like leave the house and call journalists on the phone. But what is obvious is that Salinger lived somewhere that was both purposely hard to find and populated with people who would know an outsider when they saw one (and, in turn, could help shield the author from them).
It’s an area I’m familiar with – because it’s where I grew up.
Cornish, New Hampshire and Windsor, Vermont are about an hour away from my hometown, another small town in Vermont that is a bit easier to find and a little more welcoming to newcomers, but still not a place people move to when they want to be discovered. The level of privacy that Salinger craved is not uncommon in those parts – and it’s not because both Vermont and New Hampshire are filled with undercover stars (they’re not, trust me), but because it’s a good place to go when you want to be left alone. Salinger wanted to be left alone, but that desire wasn’t good enough for plenty of people, and it certainly wasn’t good enough for Salerno – and there’s something unavoidably sad about that.
It’s an unsettling emotion that begins to permeate the film early on and never quite abates. As the film continues, Salerno’s desire to unearth information about a man who just wanted to be left alone begins to feel invasive in a way that doesn’t exactly scream “this is purely for journalistic purposes!” and instead scans as far more exploitative.
Perhaps it’s because Salerno seems disinterested in exploring the nature of privacy, and in invading it, and is simply intent on digging up cool dirt about the beloved author (even though his film kicks off with that interesting, compelling section about the pursuit of Salinger by McDermott). Perhaps the film’s marketing, which has been driven by an “oh, look, secrets!” stance, speaks quite clearly to Salerno’s actual approach to the material, an approach he might have tapped into before he even got down to the business of making the film. Perhaps that feeling is due to the oddly unflinching nature of some of Salerno’s interview subjects, people who pursued Salinger in various ways and for various ends, but who all seem unrepentant about looking for a man who didn’t want to be found. Honestly, it’s probably them, because at least two of them appear to be deluded about their pursuit of Salinger to the point that it’s a bit nauseating to watch.
Early on in the film, Salerno interviews “fan” Michael Clarkson who, in 1978, went to Salinger’s home in New Hampshire with a note and a burning desire for guidance from his “hero.” After waiting at the bottom of Salinger’s driveway, Clarkson eventually spotted Salinger and his son Matthew coming down, only for Salinger to stop his car, come to Clarkson, and demand to know what he wanted. While Clarkson first seemed heartened by Salinger’s interest, when he finally fesseed up that he wanted to talk about deep things with the author, Salinger balked, telling him that he is just a writer and does not have the answers people want (people who chase him, people who pursue him, people who have no respect for their hero’s wishes, people who seem to feel owed).
In recounting the tale, Clarkson seems wounded, offended, and surprised that Salinger rebuffed him in this way. He is still shocked that someone he so admired would be dismissive of a person showing up on his property, demanding life advice, a kind word, some direction, and continues on, plain-faced, recounting the content of another note he then gave Salinger, one that included the line “you are not as deep, as sentimental as I had hoped.” Get off my lawn.
It doesn’t stop there.
A large portion of the last act of the film is dedicated to interviews with author Joyce Maynard, who lived with Salinger when she was just a teen. Their relationship started up after the young writer began to get notice for her own work, which prompted Salinger to begin writing her letters filled with advice and understanding. Maynard revealed their relationship (which had been somewhat known, but which she had promised Salinger to never write about) back in 1998 with the publication of her memoir on the subject, “At Home in the World,” a blockbuster story that she continues to write about and which spawned plenty of other stories about Salinger and his various women (all of them quite young). Even just last month, Maynard penned an opinion piece for The New York Times about Salinger and his relationship with women.
Maynard also famously auctioned off fourteen of Salinger’s letters while he was still alive, a move that former computer mogul Peter Norton found so heinous that he bought the letters himself, only to send them back to Salinger.
As is the case with a number of other interviews in the film, Maynard’s narrative is stitched together from two different sittings (which Salerno doesn’t try to hide, curiously enough, as one interview takes place outside in the day and the other appears to be inside at night), which is fine – except that he really does stitch them together, with Salerno cutting between interviews to put together a cohesive story from Maynard. That would seem manipulative enough if it appeared that Salerno was making up his own story from the material, but Maynard seems to be firing off the same story during both interviews, with Salerno cutting between them for no discernable reason. Oddly, it makes Maynard’s story seem more manipulative – it feels practiced and rehearsed and strangely theatrical, probably because it was practiced and rehearsed and because Maynard is strangely theatrical about the situation.
Yes, Maynard’s time with Salinger is just as much his story as it is hers, but when she buckles down and shares the story of when she returned to Salinger’s home to confront him about their time together, he is again unfortunately painted as some sort of villain. Unlike the others (the “worshippers”, as she calls them), Maynard marched right up to his front door (admittedly, also once her front door) and requested his presence, from his wife (another younger lady he romanced with letters). Salinger emerged, yelling – which seems to be an understandable response, and would probably be the sort of response most people would have if a person who had promised to keep their secrets had then shared them with the world and come asking for answers. And yet Maynard seems bewildered and hurt by his response, eventually slinking back down from his house, out into the world, where she can write things about a man who, by his very nature, will not respond to them.
Salinger, of course, can’t respond to any of these things – he died in 2010 and (obviously) never gave an interview to Salerno for the film.
Salinger is available on Netflix Instant (and is still in limited theatrical release).