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J.D. Salinger 'American Masters': review

J.D. Salinger reads from his classic American novel

J.D. Salinger reads from his classic American novel "The Catcher in the Rye" in Brooklyn. (Nov. 20, 1952) Credit: San Diego Historical Society

For those who have memorized every word and comma from "The Catcher in the Rye," there is something you will most certainly not want to miss tonight - "American Masters"  two-hour-plus take on J.D. Salinger. In fact - technically - this is screenwriter Shane Salerno's take, with an assist from Harvey Weinstein. It's had a theatrical release already, and now it comes to TV. My review on the jump, and to summarize: Spectacular footage, insufficient analysis. Review and clip...


"American Masters: Salinger," WNET/13, 9]

What it's about: Screenwriter Shane Salerno spent ten years on “Salinger” (which also had a theatrical release) about the author of  "A Catcher in the Rye" who died in 2010 at age 91. With dozens of interviews, including: Hemingway biographer, A.E.Hotchner, movie stars (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and lit icons (John Guare) who explain Salinger's influence on them. (Also Jean Miller, who had a five-year relationship starting in 1949.) The basics are all here: D-Day landing as an Army sergeant, postwar breakdown, "Catcher in the Rye," and Holden Caufield...then New Hampshire seclusion.

My say: Poor Jerry Salinger. He'd hate this film. He'd hate any film about him - but this one in particular, with its faux-stirring, hyper-romanticized synth soundtrack, intrusive first-person accounts and triumphalist tone that demands you think of him as the greatest American writer since, well...since forever. (He actually might like that part. )

Of course, I have no idea what Salinger would think, but by saying nothing about one's extraordinarily famous life leaves the door open for others to say something, and dozens have their say tonight. Salerno does a yeoman's job in tracking down everyone who ever talked to Salinger, fought with him, or slept with him. What's missing, glaringly so, is a single insight into Salinger's literary merits.

His spectacular reputation essentially rests on just one slim novel. But a great book? Or a youthful literary fling and rite of passage for millions of high schoolers? With the help of observers who offer many colorful anecdotes, Salerno gets close to the paradox of Salinger's life - the more reclusive he became, the more famous he became. He never gets close to the meaning of that paradox, or of the work itself.

Salerno needed to step back, go to the books (and stories), understand their significance, then figure out Salinger from that starting point. What Salinger asked for – in a sense, still does from the grave - was understanding, not bouquets. Or to quote Holden: “Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody.”

Bottom line: Remarkable footage, plenty of smart observations from smart people,, but there's an emptiness at the core of this film.

Grade: C+


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