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'Salinger' in the wry

Published October 09. 2013 05:00PM

"Salinger" is a seemingly honest documentary about J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of "The Catcher in the Rye" who wrote a heralded, controversial, generation-shifting novel and never published another.

Although Salinger published short stories, including "Franny and Zooey" (1961), following the publication of "Catcher" in 1951 he retreated from the media glare of New York City to Cornish, N.H., where he continued to write in his "bunker," publishing his last short story in 1965, rarely granting interviews, and seldom venturing out to nearby Windsor, Vt., mostly to collect his mail.

"Salinger" takes us on the cryptic author's journey from his upper-middle class New York City upbringing, to his attending Valley Forge Military Academy, to his enlisting in the Army to serve in World War II, to his post-war meteoric rise, to his critical drubbing to his long slide into obscurity.

Salinger, who died at 91 in 2011, continued to nurture his craft. He willed his estate to publish several titles starting in 2015 and continuing until 2020 that purportedly will continue the sagas of the Caulfields of "Catcher" and the fictional Glass family.

The documentary is directed by Shane Salerno (screenwriter, "Savages," "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," "Shaft," "Armageddon"), who, with David Shields, has written a biography about Salinger.

"Salinger" is bereft of on-camera interviews with Salinger, but contains some footage without sound of Salinger very late in life, perhaps the last footage ever obtained of him. There are photographs depicting him at various stages in his life, although not that many so that many are shown repeatedly.

Dramatic recreations, as they are called in the film's credits, depict an actor at a typewriter and pacing on a theater stage, while photos and images are projected on a large screen. These seem superfluous to the film's narrative drive, are somewhat confusing and needlessly distracting.

Far better had the film-makers given us more than sound bites in the interviews with those who knew, worked with or admired Salinger's work, including authors (Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow), editors, playwrights, literary types, fans (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton), friends, ex-girlfriends (Joyce Maynard), and daughter, Margaret, and son, Matthew.

This is not a sugar-coated representation of a literary luminary. Far from it. Those interviewed present Salinger as a complicated man, psychologically wounded in war (he was in the D-Day Normandy landing, participated in the Battle of the Bulge and witnessed the liberation, such as it was, of the Nazi concentration camps), desperate for success (a story in the New Yorker mgazine was his goal), only to turn his back on fame once gained.

"Salinger" gives us a window into war through the eyes of a writer. Salinger saw 299 days of combat. He is said to have suffered a nervous breakdown, yet re-enlisted for the de-Nazification of Germany. The perspective is particularly cogent. It's said in the film that the Civil War era gave us Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and World War II gave us Salinger.

"Catcher in the Rye," and Salinger with it, were not only heralded by pundits. Salinger was courted by Hollywood, with one of his short stories transformed into "My Foolish Heart" (1949), starring Rita Hayward and Dana Andrews. It was an experience that displeased Salinger.

His star rose again in the 1960s when the counter-culture embraced the anti-establishment views of "Catcher in the Rye" protagonist Holden Caulfield. "Is it possible to grow up and not sell out?" posits "Catcher," which has sold 10 million copies and sells 250,000 annually.

Salinger's image was tarnished by the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and the assassination of John Lennon when both of the accused shooters cited "Catcher in the Rye" as an influence on their motives. In fact, a copy of the Salinger book was found at the Dakota shooting site of Lennon.

Words have power. They can have a warped power over weak individuals. Deranged persons can read into works of fiction and be influenced in bizarre ways. In this, "Salinger" is a cautionary tale.

Gertrude Stein once opined about Los Angeles: "There's no 'there' there."

And so it goes with Salinger, a "great literary mystery," as he's called.

"That was as close as I got to J. D. Salinger," says one of the interviewees.

After viewing "Salinger," you may feel the same.

"Salinger," MPAA Rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13.) for disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking; Genre: Documentary; Run time: 2 hours; Distributed by The Weinstein Company.

Credit Readers Anonymous: Clips from the "Today" show, "The Daily Show" and "South Park" are included in "Salinger."

Box Office, Oct. 4: "Gravity" rose to No. 1, opening with $55.5 million, dropping "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" to No. 2 with $21.5 million, $60.5 million, two weeks, and keeping "Runner Runner" opening at No. 3, with $7.6 million;

4. "Prisoners," $5.7 million, $47.8 million, three weeks; 5. "Rush," $4.4 million, $18 million, three weeks; 6. "Don Jon," $4.1 million, $16 million, two weeks; 7. "Baggage Claim," $4.1 million, $15.1 million, two weeks; 8. "Insidious Chapter 2," $3.8 million, $74.7 million, four; 9. "Pulling Strings," $2.5 million, opening; 10. "Enough Said," $2.1 million, $5.3 million, three weeks

Unreel, Oct. 11:

"Captain Phillips," PG-13: The drama is based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the United States-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years. Paul Greengrass ("United 93," "The Bourne Ultimatum-Supremacy") directs Tom Hanks as Phillips in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated role.

"Machete Kiss," R: Robert Rodriguez ("Spy Kids," "Machete," "Planet Terror," Sin City," "Spy Kids," "From Dusk Til Dawn")directs the sequel. Machete is recruited by the United States government to take down an arms dealer who wants to launch a weapon into space. Danny Trejo, Alexa Vega, Mel Gibson and Jessica Alba star.

"The Fifth Estate," R: Bill Condon ("The Twilight Saga," "Dreamgirls," "Kinsey," "Gods and Monsters") directs Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange in the drama based on real events.

"Romeo and Juliet," PG-13: Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth star in the romantic drama based on the Shakespeare play.

Read Paul Willistein's movie reviews at the Lehigh Valley Press web site, lehighvalleypress. comor the Times-News web site, Email Paul Willistein:

Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes

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