15/11/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

Salinger (2013)

Salinger (2013)
Director: Shane Salerno
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Judd Apatow


As I walked out of the theater after seeing Shane Salerno’s documentary, Salinger, I wondered.  Why am I interested in J.D. Salinger?  Have I been wondering why the famous author stopped publishing in 1965 and retreated from the limelight to Cornish, his home in the woods of New Hampshire?  Have I been waiting all this while for an answer to that question?  Not really.  But that’s the theme of Salinger and while the film’s review of his life revived my interest in Salinger, I found more of a satisfying answer to my question in my own ruminations.  To borrow the opening phrase from The Catcher in The Rye, “If you really want to hear about it…”, I’ll go into it.

In set-up scenes before the film title appears for Shane Salerno’s documentary on J.D. Salinger, a reporter readies himself to take a paparazzi-type photo, on the sly, with a telephoto lens, of J.D. Salinger picking up his mail. Once the reporter gets his photo, the single word Salinger comes up in gold, on a blood-red background. The gold-glyph lettering on red brought up an association for me with C.G. Jung’s revered The Red Book, promising inner images from the most important years of Salinger’s life.  However, far from revelatory, Salerno’s film reads more like a tabloid searching for psychological pathology than for numinous beginnings of genius.

Salerno’s film is factually grounded in his carefully researched book, Salinger, co-written with David Shields and contains a great deal of archival material.  However, its paparazzi set up is apt.  That initial invasion of Salinger’s privacy leads to a cinematic scrutiny of Salinger’s life, looking for indications of why he left publishing and public life in 1965. The film delves into notes, letters and photos from Salinger’s private life, interviewing people who knew him and taking excerpts from second-hand interviews about him. It even uses re-enactment scenes with a look-alike actor to further the film’s impressionistic interpretation of Salinger as a quasi-fugitive.

Now I’m as curious as the next person about the author of The Catcher In the Rye, a book that was a must-read when I was a teenager. I wanted to know more about Salinger, the man who wrote a signature book of the 20th century and validated my desire for individuality while feeling pressured for conventionality. But I’d never heard Salinger referred to as “Jerry”.  Somehow, the familiarity jarred my image of the visionary writer who is practically a subtitle to his famous book – and a member of the Glass family, the iconic American family who appears transparent but isn’t.  All sorts of disturbances are out of sight.

Salinger was a man who was always protective of his privacy and who, by his own declaration, preferred being known through his writing.  I wanted to know more about the voice that’s lasted, a mind that continues to captivate me even as I re-read The Catcher in The Rye fifty-some years later. In his writing, he praises the delicacy of innocence and holds it in high regard as a source of the will to live.  By implication, woven into the fabric of his stories, innocence is a quality to be protected above all others.  Children don’t know they have it until they begin to lose it.  Adults in Salinger’s world are often oblivious to its critical nature and don’t even know what is and isn’t tainted by phoniness.

Like Bob Dylan, J.D. Salinger caught a wave of consciousness sweeping across America and crystallized it in The Catcher in the Rye. We loved him for it — he shared forbidden thoughts, speaking directly to us as if he knew we wanted to know. Salerno is a dedicated archivist and I learned things about Salinger that made me appreciate him more than ever before. Vivid footage of WWII interspersed with photos of Salinger in uniform brought home the reality of his presence during a wrenching time in America. He was there, for real, and came home to complete a novel about a disillusioned youth that would soon catch on like wildfire. His way of talking caught a wave breaking in the 1950s, the last years of a reasonable, predictable world in which an ideal of authority reigned.

Salerno’s film takes its time exploring Salinger as a drop out, forgetting to take him seriously as writer who captured the heart of America’s rebellious youth with a story of boy trying to protect himself. Searching for answers as to why Salinger turned down the public life of a celebrated author, Salerno’s film speculates that dropping out of prep school set the stage for Salinger to see society as up to no good. It cites early romantic and literary rejection as wounding him beyond repair, leaving him an emotional cripple and more than a little crazy. And then, with help from some startling WWII footage, Salerno substantiates war as unnerving and, by association, posits its force as breaking Salinger’s spirit and mind, forever leaving him too sensitive for ordinary social interaction. Sadly, Salerno’s insistent focus on psychological pathology denies Salinger consideration of being a writer living by his own truth.

Reclusiveness and sexual relationships with young women hardly qualify as pathology amongst artists.  And then, as the film itself explains, Salinger was well known in his hometown in New Hampshire, kept up longtime friendships with army buddies, sought out romantic liaisons and, most importantly, continued to write. As for his inclination to seek out young women, just think about Picasso — and keep listing famous men who romance women who are decades younger than themselves. Salinger himself referred to the artistic importance of his infatuation with a teenager in a personal letter to the girl in question, Esme.  He stated emphatically that he couldn’t have written his short story, “For Esme – with love and squalor,” without her.

Salinger forgets the author’s famous message of distrust in The Catcher in the Rye. It acknowledges Salinger’s identification with Holden Caulfield and then forgets to consider what Holden would’ve done in Salinger’s shoes when society came knocking. The film prefers to play with the theme of pathology, comparing Salinger to Howard Hughes and joining critics in seeing him as a wounded man who never grew up.  Rather than focusing on Salinger as a serious writer wanting freedom, the film pumps up the wattage on his refusal to be a public figure.   The irony may be that Salinger became fully himself right under the nose of a public hungry for his hide.

Why not take Salinger at his word? I think it would have been fascinating to delve into his written words seeking a rationale to explain forty years of silence. It’s not even hard to speculate why he wouldn’t  drop out of a society that, as he’d made clear in one of the most famous books of the 20th century, doesn’t accept individuals for who they are. To his way of thinking, society co-opts the creativity of individuals for its own ends. Does it take more than his own philosophy to understand his rebellion and angst?  How about a reference to the fact that neither Tennessee Williams nor Truman Capote ever wrote another serious work after succumbing to the wiles of fame? And what of Norman Mailer, another 20th century icon, who arguably lost his footing as the shredding public winds had their way with him?

Salinger began Holden Caulfield stories before he went to war. The film explains that Salinger kept several chapters tucked inside his jacket on D-Day for protection, and it (somehow) worked. After two years in the trenches, Salinger’s got off the front lines and into intelligence gathering – and, by his own words, into digging foxholes to cowardly depths.  Though he was always in terrible danger, his need to survive in order to get his message out to the world gets short shrift in the film.

Isn’t it more interesting, and equally credible, that Salinger – like Holden – sized up the oppressive weight of a disapproving, judgmental and popularizing public and thought better of growing up on its terms? After William Shawn, the New Yorker editor he regarded as a soul brother, used almost an entire issue to publish the story, Hapworth 16, 1924, in 1965, the critics panned his story.  At first, Salinger pursued publication as a novella – and then changed his mind. Deciding not to publish was the last of his interface with the public. Even so, he never stopped writing.   

Why not wonder if Salinger, the man who found a touchstone of rationale for rebellion against society in millions of people, believed the authenticity of his voice wouldn’t survive mass marketing? Would he want to offer the heart and soul of his developing perspectives on war and intimate relations with women to a society he thought inhospitable, hypocritical? It’s public knowledge that he regarded society as hostile to values he held dear — innocence, authenticity and creativity. His refusal to be a dancing bear for society may be better explained by looking within Salinger’s own stories.

Now I can give you the answer I found to my question.  The writer is the J.D. Salinger I’m interested in. I’m interested in the J.D. Salinger who may have been walking his talk, rebelling against a society that thinks it has a better idea for young minds than the ones they have for themselves, the society that idolizes their bodies and their youth but throws them away in war and tampers indiscriminately with their exuberance.  I’m re-reading his old books for clues of what Salinger was protecting.  And I await the books of his later years – the ones Salerno cites at the end of the documentary that may be published between 2015 and 2020 – to see what emerges from Salinger’s reclusiveness. This American icon may have been tapping a chord submerged in our collective psyche.

In seeming testimony to the veracity of my curiosity, I recently read in the New York Times (October 13, 2013) about 82 year-old Janet K. Ruttenberg, a painter who’s refused to sell a single painting and never exhibited her work until now. Seventeen of her paintings are on view at the Museum of the City of New York in a show called “Picturing Central Park.” Her comment when asked about her decision to ignore the art market and paint only for herself? “I’m just not interested. I’m interested in working. It’s like cracking a code.”

Or perhaps the words of singer-songwriter David Byrne capture a few notes of the Salinger chord: “If the 1% Stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m Out of Here.” As marketing has replaced incubation, artists may long for the days when they were ignored until they blossomed.  Byrne talks about his early days with his band, Talking Heads, when exploration without the embarrassment of public scrutiny was critical to their development of a musical identity.

From a younger source, my grandson True deliberates blogging even as he posts his first blog, a self-inflicted publishing option for Millennial generation writers. He channels what could be an inner Salinger-esque voice debating the pros and cons of writing for a waiting audience, a critical audience, an audience with the audaciousness of a society that judges value by popular success. For any serious writer, especially a young one, feeding a hungry public dragon poses a distraction. As True says, “Actually writing is one thing, but straining to display it is another altogether, especially when it consists of the musings of a good-for-nothing twenty-something.” And I hear Salinger’s chord twanging.

Only the writer knows when ripening has occurred. Without knowing whether readers await, the writer chooses the moment to come forward.

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15/05/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

In The House (2013)

In The House (2013)
Director: François Ozon
Writers: François Ozon (screenplay), Juan Mayorga (play)
Stars: Fabrice Luchini, Vincent Schmitt, Ernst Umhauer


Ask yourself.  What’s happening In The House?  That is, who really knows what’s happening In The House?

“If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house.  Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly.  Visitors come and go.  At some windows, you may wish to stay longer, but alas.  As with any house all within cannot be seen.”

–Preface to James Salter’s memoir, “Burning the Days”

No doubt we have all sat on park benches, looking at a house across the way and wondering about the family who lives there. In the driveway, a man bounces a basketball, his wife waves good-bye to him as she gets in her car and their son hops on his bike, a book bag slung over his shoulder. One could just sit and wonder… or one could figure out a way to enter the house and write a story like Scheherazade warding off death, captivating your audience as if your life depended on it. In the new film by acclaimed French director Francoise Ozon (Swimming Pool, 2003), a sixteen-year old student responds to a writing assignment asking for little more than what he did over the weekend with a cliffhanger story that draws his professor, episode by episode, into an edgy real life drama.

The opening scene of In The House takes place in the austere high-ceiling marble foyer of the prestigious Gustav Flaubert High School, where a professor sits alone – on a different kind of bench – waiting for a meeting. It’s a forbidding, cold atmosphere for a student like Claude (Ernst Umhauer) who doesn’t come from a privileged home. The next scene is of Claude putting on a school uniform that speaks of his enrollment status while masking his troubled emotional background and, unlike clothes of choice, hides personal identity. Claude, a gifted student, embarks on a journey that reveals a talent for entrancing his professor that’s a bit disturbing.

In response to the assignment to describe his weekend, Claude writes about his perceptions of a family — a longed-for “perfect family” of another student in his class, Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto). He volunteers to tutor Rapha out of voyeuristic curiosity about his “perfect family”, but as it turns out, Claude’s writing  about Rapha’s home life arouses hope in his teacher, Mr. Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a disgruntled professor known as a dispenser of C’s, D’s and F’s.  Mr. Germain’s demeaning attitude toward his students leads him to treat Claude’s writing with disdain. He often dismisses his depictions of the Artole family and pushes for more detail but, as he does, Claude rises to the challenge. Instead of getting ground down by Mr. Germain’s harsh critiques, he asks appreciatively, “Why are you helping me?”

The special mentoring continues as Mr. Germain gets caught up in the drama of Claude’s story.  Claude takes his professor’s lessons increasingly to heart and begins to incorporate, in real life and in his writing, the scenes Mr. Germain wants. The story itself comes alive – in Rapha’s house, in Claude’s writing and Mr. Germain’s mind. Mr. Germain shares Claude’s writing assignments with his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), who runs an offbeat art gallery. Claude’s stories spark erotic, slightly comical conversations between the two of them. Together they begin to speculate on what’s truth and what’s sheer imagination. Mrs. Germain believes Claude is reporting real events while her husband sees Claude as an imaginative writer with potential, a young version of himself before he gave up writing to become a professor. Soon husband and wife are caught up in Claude’s story; as the presence of Claude and his story expand into Mr. and Mrs. Germain’s relationship, the film audience is also drawn into the enticing question of what’s real and what’s not.

Claude rapidly evolves from Rapha’s tutor to his best friend, then to a family friend joining extracurricular activities and taking more liberties in order to give Mr. Germain a technically sophisticated story. He discovers x-rays of a spinal column in Rapha Sr.’s desk, spies Rapha’s parents having sex and examines Mrs. Artole’s shoe collection. Mr. Germain’s writing lessons push Claude to go further into his desires for inclusion in the family and relations with Rapha’s mother, Esther.  He pushes beyond the limits of protocol into perilous territory when he develops the particularities of character identity and, at least theoretically, stirs up emotional reactions in the Artole family.

As fabrication brings truth forward, the film pulls the audience in.  We see Mr. Germain appear in the Artole home, enacting his critiques of Claude’s writing as if correcting his work then and there. What’s real and what’s being expanded in Claude’s writing? Is he really kissing his friend’s mother?  Then what’s Mr. Germain doing in the kitchen critiquing him while he does? Is Claude pursuing personal desires or projecting his desires for effect? From what point of view are we seeing? The line gets pushed hard when Rapha fails to show up in class one day and Claude offers an explanation in his writing that scares Mr. Germain out of his wits. The writer’s power, of course, is to write a scene from one point of view and then to rewrite it from another. Claude blurts out that he knows Mr. Germain was not going to like his original version of Rapha’s reaction to seeing him kiss his mother so he writes it another way.

If you know a writer, you should know that, as their friend, you’re going to show up in their stories. For a writer, the line between a friend as a separate person and as fodder for a story is a fine one indeed. The line between the real and the imagined is simply not the writer’s focus. It’s the story that counts. And for a writer looking to develop quality writing, the skill to weave fantasy and reality into a compelling drama is the grand objective. Who didn’t read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code searching for the bloodline of Christ as if it would be revealed in spite of knowing the story was a complete fabrication? Fantasy is a land we inhabit as surely as it’s a place that doesn’t exist, especially when it enlivens us. And we like writers who draw from their own life experiences, putting tangible skin in the game.

Giving the Persian King his nightly dose of soul medicine extended Scheherazade’s life for 1001 nights – and gave many more nights of pleasure to readers with many more stories than the well-known Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad. Claude manages to get Mr. Germain to extend his private lessons with irresistible, “to be continued” Scheherazade-like endings until the professor, like the King before him, develops an addictive attachment to his student. Voyeurism does not have to be a sexual preoccupation to become an obsession; “I like women,” Germain declares defensively to his wife in bed one night when she speculates that he has erotic yearnings for Claude. No need for the Greek teacher-student notion.  Germain is hooked on Claude’s writing ability to break through his ennui. As movie lovers, we’re arguably diagnosable voyeurs.

As the talented Francois Ozon, charismatic Fabrice Luchini and quicksilver Kristin Scott Thomas lure us into an impatient anticipation of Claude’s next episode of his borderline diabolical portrayal of a family, we don’t know whether to resist or go all in. Voyeurism has its dark side. The more taboo the revelation, the more intriguing the explanation thereof. At times Claude, an unassuming young man who’s invading a friend’s family to satisfy personal desires, seems akin to a scary protagonist in a horror movie. Claude’s collaboration with Mr. Germain takes both of them further into the perils of curiosity than either ever intended. But, for good or bad, Claude revivifies the deadened lives of the Artole and Germain families with his imaginative powers.

How strong is the pull of fantasy in real life? Francois Ozon’s talent is to hover just above the real, reveal just enough to challenge the bounds of ethical reasoning and lead the viewer into temptation to try their own hand at this business of storytelling.

Lies or deep truth? Treachery or revelation? Mockery or comedy? Finality or (To Be Continued…)?

I liked the ending. It begs beginning. Go ahead, sit on a park bench, look into the windows across the way and risk the perils of curious fantasizing.

“ The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is lying for its own sake. ”

— Oscar Wilde

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