Nice work, but the recluse stays hid­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

Salinger (M) ★★★★✩ National re­lease on Thurs­day

White House Down (M) ★★★✩✩

National re­lease

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

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