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Telluride: 'Salinger' Delivers on Promise of Big Revelations, But at What Price?

Shane Salerno's highly anticipated doc profiles the late, great writer J.D. Salinger through interviews, archival materials -- and photos of questionable origin.

JD Salinger 1952 - H 2013
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The main attraction of the final morning of the 40th Telluride Film Festival was the world premiere of Shane Salerno’s documentary Salinger. The film, profiling J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of the 1953 best-selling novel Catcher in the Rye who passed away in 2010, is being distributed by The Weinstein Co. It has been highly anticipated in many circles, because promotional materials promised major new revelations about the man and his work. That it certainly delivers, and the audience at the Palm Theatre seemed to enjoy it quite a bit.

But while I respect and appreciate the biographical elements of the film, which include fantastic archival materials and interviews with many people who knew and admired the man, I feel much more conflicted about other parts of it that veer into tabloid territory and brazenly violate the privacy that he fought so hard to protect while he was alive and residing quietly in Cornish, New Hampshire. There is a fine line between being an admirer and being a stalker, and I feel that the film -- like some of the people who it puts front and center -- isn’t necessarily on the right side of it.

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With master showman Harvey Weinstein distributing Salinger, I have no doubt that a large potential audience -- including Academy members -- will hear about it and see it. But creative types could take similar or even greater issue with the film’s rather distasteful decision to showcase long-lens paparazzi photos that intruded on the man's privacy even while he was on his own property, since they can understand as well as anyone that artists are entitled to be -- and often must be -- eccentric, socially inept or secluded in order to make their art. For Salinger, that was certainly the case.

And with so many quality docs in this year's Oscar race -- including 20 Feet from Stardom, The Unknown Known, Cutie and the Boxer and Inequality for All from Weinstein's TWC and RADiUS alone -- I'm not sure that things will break in Salinger's favor.

I do understand the desire to know a man whose one published novel has sold hundreds of millions of copies and spoken to generations of people who shared Holden Caulfield's belief that they were living in a world filled with “phonies.” One of the film’s random talking-heads, Philip Seymour Hoffman, says, “You’re so grateful to him and you want to go find him.” But the film would have been fascinating enough -- if not as buzzed-about -- if it had limited itself to profiling Salinger’s life and left out the more problematic fare.

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I, for one, never knew that Salinger once aspired to be an actor or a theater critic; or that he was a World War II vet traumatized by his experiences in Europe; or that he pitched his work to Ernest Hemingway while there and received positive feedback; or that he was briefly married to a Nazi before engaging in flings with numerous very young women who projected the sort of innocence that he idealized; or that his unusual work habits later in life -- writing things until he felt they were perfect and then ultimately saving them for himself -- may be attributable to his interest in Buddhism and other Eastern religious philosophies; or that he was very much a member of the community in Cornish, and that the community, in turn, helped to protect him from strangers who made pilgrimages to town hoping to see and/or have a word with him.

The film’s final revelation about Salinger's unpublished work -- if true -- is certainly one of the most significant to ever hit the literary world. I won’t reveal anything more about it, though, because that would be unfair to the filmmakers -- just as, I’m afraid, it was unfair to Salinger for the filmmakers to include some of the things they did. Is that the sort of world we want to live in, where privacy is completely dead? Being a fiction writer -- as opposed to, say, a politician -- should not come with the prerequisite of being a public figure. And this was a man who, for a variety of reasons that the film addresses very well, never wanted to be one.

Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottFeinberg for additional news and analysis.