Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Friday, September 06, 2013

Does this new documentary truly cast light upon the shadow of Salinger?

One of the big releases into movie theaters this weekend is Salinger,a documentary about the legendary writer(which comes complete with a tie-in book) that claims to open the lid on the Pandora's box that was his life.

The film talks to fans as well as fellow writers and people who did interact in J.D. Salinger's limited world,plus reveals that a number of previously  unpublished works of his will start to see the light of day on bookshelves within the next few years.

That's good news for lit folk,however,most of the reviews of the film find the documentary to be rather bombastic in tone and an overall badly done bio for any writer,let alone one famously known to hate "phonies". How well this will do at the box office is yet to be determined but I'm sure the film makers are hoping for some Oscar buzz:

 I don't have plans to run out and see this movie,regardless of the reviews,but I am concerned about what I consider to be an important element in discussing J.D. Salinger's personal life and that is Joyce Maynard.

An author in her own right,best known for her novel To Die For(which became a Nicole Kidman film),Joyce Maynard had some controversy sent her way after the publication of her memoir At Home In the World,which talked about the troubled relationship between her and Salinger.

Maynard was 19 when he at age 53 contacted her to praise the article she had written for New York Times magazine and his pursuit of her lead to their living together for nearly a year. The balance of the relationship kept him in control and Maynard was emotionally as well as sexually manipulated until he grew tired of her company and abruptly sent her away.

It took her twenty five years to even consider talking about the impact of that time period upon her openly and she did receive some flack for "betraying" Salinger's trust,which was and is ridiculous in my opinion. Yes, I read AHITW and as a reader, I know the truth when I see it in print:

Joyce Maynard was interviewed for the film(as well as another woman who was drawn into Salinger's life when she was 14 and he was 40) and has said to find the finished product lacking in regards to discussing that unseemly aspect of his nature.

Fortunately,she has more positive things to focus on right now,such as the impending film release of Labor Day,an adaptation of her 2009 novel(it's a great read,I strongly recommend it) but it still troubles me that this documentary may be glossing over such a pertinent detail into Salinger's psyche.

 Whenever you look into the life and times of a major artist, it is tempting to paint the subject in the most flattering light and even slightly adjusting some of the less than perfect features of their persona to suit your needs is an injustice to those wanting to gleam true insight about what made this person the creative force that they were. Worse still is the possible excuse making for certain behavior,which is easier to forgive when the people involved are long dead and buried.

A diligent biographer,regardless of medium, should embrace their subject with a firm desire to accept both their good and bad traits as part and parcel of the deal in showcasing him or her to the rest of the world. Downplaying the negative facts is just as much of a disservice as overlooking or ignoring them altogether.

 Salinger isn't the only writer to get this sort of blind adulation but there comes a time when you need to evolve your feelings and face the truth that someone who may have been a great influence in your world view was a rotten bastard in many ways. Charles Dickens is one of the greatest authors the world has ever known and yet, most of his modern day biographers acknowledge his terrible faults as a husband and a father,which to my mind only enhances the turbulent nature of his work:

 The temptation to rewrite an artistic hero's life is understandable. However, if your aim is to be perceived as a serious biographer or documentary film maker,your standards of truth in presentation need to be set higher than most.

I know that other documentaries in the past have debated the notion of "truth in advertising" in their depictions of a person or cause but it can severely undercut your ultimate goal by framing the actual facts in a frame that serves your purpose(rather than the audience's)the best.

In the end,Salinger the documentary will rouse a renewed interest in the man's current body of work and at least that may achieve something good there. It's too bad that finding a real literary hero may be something best left to the realm of fiction:

1 comment:

Thaddeus said...

This is excellent - and very thoughtful. I strongly agree that any serious biographer has to address the bad and the good of their subject. And filmmakers, while they may have a specific story they want to show viewers, owe it to themselves and audiences and people affected by those subjects.

You can't ignore that some good people have ugly pasts, or were not as perfect as their reputation makes them seem. Lincoln apparently grew to consider different people as equals after Emancipation, and people should know that - it made me respect him for changing.

And you can't do a biography of Don King without acknowledging that he killed a man. JFK slept around shamelessly. Andrew Jackson killed a whole bunch of American Indians, flouting the law while doing so. And the lovely Frick Museum was founded by a guy who loved to hire union busters; some suggest that the edifice itself serves to make him seem a better person than he truly was.

I never knew this stuff about Salinger, and it's a damn shame that he had an unhealthy attitude towards people who, just as a lover alone, he had a responsibility to treat well. It's upsetting, but it's important information to have and air in the public. Jackson shouldn't be allowed to hide behind success, Frick shouldn't get to buy forgiveness and adulation, nor should JFK escape scrutiny with his charm and tragedy, and Salinger shouldn't be allowed to get by on the wall of silence emotional abuse can create.