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May 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Dear Mr. S
[Molly McQuade, a Booklist columnist, is writing a series of meditations on J. D. Salinger that will be published on Booklist Online under the title “Dear Mr. S.” Here is the fifth installment. —Ed.]
Dear Mr. S,
The flaw of Salinger the documentary film is that, by limiting unduly the cast assembled in it to provide insightful information about yourself, the filmmakers limit not only the scope of your life and our understanding of it. They also limit our lives as characters invented and sustained by Salinger. We are your erstwhile creatures, and we always will be, because we find ourselves in your words.
To put it simply, the not very various guys summoned monotonously to comment in the movie remain dedicated, sometimes intelligently, to their subject. But the picture still looks funny. For Salinger’s words as written by him just aren’t like these fellows, or not enough.
The words of Mr. S are steeped now, as ever, in sticky universals that seize hold of our lives with an ornery mirth, authoring us, thanks to a deep range of democatically, infernally humane people and particulars. There are gods, women, and bananafish, to begin with. To watch and listen as Hollywood rolls out merely one white guy after another (the lone exception: Ved Mehta) to remark with improvised pride on Salinger is surreal. It is absurd, too. It’s like screening a Saturday Night Live send-up of a boyishly “literary” master culture, as imagined satirically by Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell. In that literary club are all kinds of people: Martin Sheen (twice); Edward Norton. The man who theorizes, with a salacious grin, Salinger’s “unappeasable hunger.” Sundry look-alike male “writers” too well tanned to be writers, except in L.A.; and so on. The biographer Scott Berg, who gives his nimble best to the film, apparently was never asked the question that might count most: why he has not taken on the challenge of composing a biography of Salinger.
The few Salinger ex-girlfriends invited onscreen to tell us about yourself the swain serve to emphasize the unmissable main point: by excluding so many articulate, authoritative constituents of the Salinger electorate from this “documentary” film, the moviemakers conjure an incongruously censored fiction about him, one of cautiously, narrowly selected perspectives. Yes, I feel it. It’s like a mass eviction of Salinger people. (The lone “fan” included isn’t smart and isn’t heartening.)
To name just a quibble or two, there is no Janet Malcolm in the film, either present or quoted. She is Salinger’s best living critic. Of the past, there is no mention of Eudora Welty or Josephine Jacobsen, whose words about him in their lifetimes were accurate, unprejudiced, concise, and persuasive. There is no Lillian Ross, except as delivered in an arch reminiscence by Joyce Maynard. There is no this, no that, no etc., just one more necktie and a bit of artful chin stubble.
Mr. S, you’d hate it. The inauthentic irritated you.
True, there are starlet sorts, who seem authentic. There are blondes, who may or may not be.
There is Oona O’Neill, at whose wholesome teenybopper Betty Crocker glamor the camera leers and leers and leers, maybe like the young Salinger.
By now, would you know better?
See the portrait of Oona, over yonder.
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