Nice work, but the recluse stays hidden
Salinger (M) ★★★★✩ National release on Thursday
White House Down (M) ★★★✩✩
IN the first paragraph of JD Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield gives his opinion of Hollywood and films in general. ‘‘ If there’s one thing I hate,’’ he says, ‘‘ it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.’’ Later he goes on at length about a movie ‘‘ so putrid I couldn’t take my eyes off it’’. From his incomplete synopsis of the plot, I guessed the film was Random Harvest, the classic love story with Greer Garson and Ronald Colman. I’ve always loved Random Harvest but, like many other good things in this world, it made Holden puke.
It seems a fair assumption that Holden’s views on movies reflected those of his creator, JD Salinger. And since Salinger died in 2010, we can only speculate on what he would have thought of Salinger, Shane Salerno’s engrossing documentary about his life and work. I think he would have hated it. But to adapt Holden words again, if you really want to hear what Salinger’s lousy childhood was like, and how his parents were occupied and all before they had him, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, Salinger is the film to see. This is a resonant, thoughtful, beautifully crafted and largely affectionate study of a writer’s brilliant but uneven career and his generally unhappy relationships with women.
Yet Salinger remains an enigma. It is well known that he shunned publicity and refused all requests for interviews. After the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 he lived as a recluse for more than a half century in the small town of Cornish, New Hampshire. His last story to appear in print was published in The New Yorker in June 1965. How he spent his long years in seclusion has always been something of a mystery.
Salerno’s film coincides with the publication of a book he wrote with David Shields. They tell essentially the same story. The picture of Salinger that emerges from interviews with friends, relatives, actors, publishers and other writers is of a lonely, melancholy and obsessive man with odd spiritual leanings, a prima donna in literary matters (he once threw a tantrum after an editor inserted a comma in one of his stories) and, in Mary McCarthy’s prescient judgment, a narcissist. He had intense relationships with at least seven women, all much younger than himself. When Oona O’Neill, the daughter of the playwright, broke off their affair to marry Charlie Chaplin, the rift was especially painful. Many of Salinger’s subsequent wives and concubines he treated cruelly.
Probably the most formative influence on Salinger was his traumatic combat experience in World War II. Army doctors had rejected him for service, but he was determined to fight and finally enlisted in 1941. After taking part in the Normandy landing (carrying into battle, according to Salerno, six chapters of Catcher in manuscript form), he witnessed at first hand the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Is it possible that these experiences helped shape Holden’s adolescent angst and inner rage? Is it possible, as the film suggests, that Mark David Chapman, the killer of John Lennon, and John Hinckley, the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, were both driven to their crimes by reading The Catcher in the Rye? (Hinckley offered this justification during his trial.)
The film’s one notable disclosure is that Salinger completed several substantial unpublished works during his years of isolation. They include a fictional diary based on the experiences of a World War II intelligence agent, a wartime love story based on his marriage to a German girl in 1946, a religious manual, and more instalments in the life of Holden Caulfield.
No doubt they will prove a publishing bonanza, but I have a feeling Salinger fans will be disappointed. If any of them were great books, or merely very good ones, surely someone as vain as Salinger would have released them already. But who knows? Some may be made into movies, and one day, perhaps, there will be a film of The Catcher in the Rye. Jerry Lewis was keen to play the part in the 50s, but today I’d go for Nicholas Hoult, the soulful vampire in Warm Bodies — enough, surely, to make Holden puke. WHATEVER their political leanings, Americans are said to hold the office of the president in almost reverential esteem, but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood churning out endless summer blockbusters in which the symbols of the presidency are spectacularly trashed. The latest, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, perpetuates a long tradition of movie mayhem on Capitol Hill. Emmerich has been the high priest of disaster movies since aliens demolished large parts of Washington (includ- ing the White House) in Independence Day. The US release of White House Down followed hard on that of Olympus Has Fallen, another film about a White House raid foiled by a loyal insider. It may be no coincidence that Air Force One, last seen downed in Air Force One, gets downed again in White House Down. While there has never been a shortage of action in Hollywood summer blockbusters, there would seem to be a shortage of plots.
The hero of Emmerich’s film is a Washington cop called John Cole (Channing Tatum). Jamie Foxx plays president James Sawyer, who has upset the ‘‘ military-industrial complex’’ by announcing his intention to withdraw all US forces from the Middle East and negotiate peace with the newly elected president of Iran. A bunch of right-wing fanatics and mercenaries lead a raid on the White House aimed at taking the president hostage. Foxx isn’t the first black president to appear in a Hollywood movie — Morgan Freeman filled the role in Deep Impact well before Barack Obama made it to the Oval Office — but Foxx could just about pass as an Obama look-alike when he isn’t wearing those heavy specs. It’s one of his most engaging performances. He and Tatum work well together, trapped in a lift-shaft for much of the movie in what becomes a kind of presidential buddy picture.
Much of the story (screenplay by James Vanderbilt) is far-fetched and ridiculous, but Emmerich is a practised hand at this sort of thing and, much to my surprise, White House Down turned out to be a more than passable action thriller. It’s a good half hour before the first shots are fired, and the slow build-up of tension is effective. The White House interiors, expertly re-created with their antique furnishings and rooms tastefully decorated with paintings and priceless artefacts, provide a novel background for an orgy of gunfire. One of the villains is played by Australian actor Jason Clarke, and there’s a spirited performance from Joey King as Cole’s teenage daughter Emily, who annoyed me by addressing her father as John. But you can’t help liking Emily when she turns out to be the film’s authentic heroine. I said the story was ridiculous, but it got me in. I recommend White House Down to all disaster junkies and observers of US presidential politics.
Channing Tatum in White House
Down, top, and JD Salinger