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SALINGER

★★★

PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS AN ENIGMA

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By Daniel Lammin
12th January 2014
We love the Reclusive Artist, don’t we? Doesn’t it just fit our image of what a true artist should be, secretive and private and probably disgruntled at the whole world? It’s even better if they’ve produced a singular great work that changed their generation and every generation since, and no artist fits this bill better than legendary hermit J. D. Salinger. Creator of one of the most influential and beloved books of the last century, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, his life has remained mostly a mystery, especially after the writer disappeared into the American heartland after the immense response to his book. It even reached a point where reporters were pursuing the man as they would a more commercial celebrity.

Documentary filmmaker Shane Salerno spent a number of years researching and uncovering Salinger’s life, and the result is his handsome if messy documentary, ‘Salinger’. Spanning the entirety of the man’s life and career, the film combines rare personal photographs of the writer with talking head interviews from friends, colleagues and academics. The portrait Salerno paints of Salinger the Man isn’t always the most flattering (thank goodness), a womaniser with a taste for younger women and an artist riddled with self-importance (though the film presents this as a virtue rather than a flaw). Where Salerno stumbles, however, is with Salinger the Writer, presented free of fault or criticism, a messiah to American literature. Any portrait of a great artist obviously aims to demonstrate the importance of its subject, but ‘Salinger’ falls very quickly into hero-worship, especially in a sickening sequence covering the release and response to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, myriads of talking heads proclaiming its greatness and obviously set-up shots of rooms full of students all holding copies of the book and laughing.

SALINGER - TRAILER

Now, I might be a tad biased in this instance (I found ‘Rye’ a dull and infuriatingly self-important book), but there an obvious lack of balance in the way the response to Salinger’s work is presented. Any criticism discussed is dismissed as misguided or just plain wrong, and there is only a cursory glance at the negative cultural effects or negative legacy his work has received. There’s no doubt that Salerno has a tremendous amount of love for Salinger and his work, but that seems to have gotten in the way of a balanced and objective assessment. Then again, this may be the influence of the Weinsteins, executive producers of the film. There is a sensationalist, almost tabloid nature to the film that we’ve seen from them before, and perhaps the film would have been cleaner and more direct if it wasn’t geared towards their love of a money-making "twist" ending. The film also suffers from having been released in one of the best years for documentaries in a very long time. Up against ‘Blackfish’ or ‘We Steal Secrets’, ‘Salinger’ seems a bit heavy-handed, surprisingly uncinematic. It isn’t a massive fault, but does become more obvious because of the films around it.

That’s a lot of criticism to direct at the documentary, but there is also a tremendous amount to like about it. Salinger the man is an incredibly fascinating subject, especially as we know so little about him. His experiences during the Second World War are particularly fascinating, especially when giving context to his artistic work. The personal interviews are all engaging and honest, particularly with his relationships, many of which were destroyed by his commitment to his writing. The bulk of the film is made up of this material, and thankfully so, meaning that ‘Salinger’ ends up being quite a fulfilling and certainly entertaining documentary, even with its many bumps along the way. If anything, it serves to make the announcement at the end of the film of the upcoming release of unpublished works that much more intriguing (even if it makes the film feel like a really long advertisement for more exciting things to come). In the end, ‘Salinger’ is a flawed yet fascinating portrait of an intriguing artistic figure. It could have been better (a bit more of an objective stance on his writing would have been welcome), but it also could have been a lot worse. At the very least, you get an entertaining look into the world of the Reclusive Artist, that romantic notion that might not be so romantic after all.

There is a sensationalist, almost tabloid nature to the film that we’ve seen from the Weinsteins before.

PICTURE & SOUND
As with any documentary, the video and audio on this Blu-ray release of ‘Salinger’ is a mixed bag. Combining recent interviews with archive material, though, this is to be expected, and Roadshow have given the film a handsome 1080p 1.85:1 transfer that appears to accurately represent the source material. Detail is clear and colours are balanced, and the archive material doesn’t stick out too much. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is, also as expected, modest and functional. Along with the preposterous score by Lorne Balfe, the track nicely balances the audio from the interviews to make sure everything is clear. Not the kind of disc you use to show off your set-up at home, but as good a presentation as this film could need.

SPECIAL FEATURES
Not a single feature. In Roadshow’s defence however, the film has yet to receive a U.S. home entertainment release date, and I imagine that set will feature deleted interviews and extra material, and for our Australian release, there probably wasn’t any extra material available. It’s a pity, as some interesting titbits might have hit the cutting room floor, but the film is interesting enough to get along without them.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: 15/01/2014
RUN TIME: 2h 0m
CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Edward Norton
John Cusack
Martin Sheen
Danny Devito
DIRECTOR: Shane Salerno
PRODUCERS: Craig Fanning
Deborah Randall
Shane Salerno
Buddy Squires
SCORE: Lorne Balfe
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