Reviews Of Salinger And Patience (After Sebald)
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/20/13
I recently watched a couple of documentaries-cum-hagiographies on two vastly overrated writers: American prosist J.D. Salinger and German avant gardist W.G. Sebald. The two films I watched were titled Salinger and Patience (After Sebald). I watch both films on Netflix one afternoon.
In my review of Salinger’s Nine Stories, I wrote:
These Nine Stories are hermetic 1950ish tales, whose ‘humor’ is more based upon the fact that they are written in an oddly exclusive fifty to sixty year old idiom than being truly comic portrayals of human frailties. They are also strangely void of any real deep philosophy or insight; instead being mired in the then-current Freudian and pseudo-Freudian machinations thought to motivate real people, yet which have hooked deeply into the psyche of many readers, despite their absurdity. Yet, there is a certain critic-proof quality to the tales because of this near-fetishism not of the actual writing, but the meta-idea of what the writing is deemed to be about and represent. This is because it is rare, in the criticism of Salinger that I’ve read, that what the stories actually are about and/or accomplish, are addressed. Instead, there is a cultic quality to the ogling of the Glass and Caulfield families, partly buttressed and abetted by Salinger’s own weird public persona’s bizarre appeal- think Howard Hughes or Michael Jackson, wherein a member of either clan could pick their nose or suck their thumb (with or without booger attached) and Salingerians would insist that some cosmic relevance or Oriental or Zen symbolism was afoot, merely because of the way the character’s finger plumbed their nostril. This also allows Salingerians to pummel those who are not as impressed, with the writing of their hero, as being shallow or unenlightened, rather than merely able to see the limitations and flaws that are manifest to all but the devoted. Salinger is held up as a veritable godhead of anti-materialism and shallowness, yet this is not only a simplification, but an outright misread. Salinger is not a prophet against shallowness, rather an advocate of a different form of shallowness- intellectual shallowness to narcotize one from life’s pain, rather than the more manifest spiritual shallowness. Just look at characters like Esmé- she’s a phony, and even Teddy McArdle is a boor in the making. On top of that, Salinger is also a satirist, a point even his greatest admirers miss, although his satire is sometimes lame, and is taken for ‘realism’ by those enamored of stereotypes. Yet, these very misreads lend a cultic quality to Salinger’s work, and this sort of non-critical adoration is what many writers seem to want for their own work, but the truth is such personal fawning obscures any work, and instills an artistic reliance on things not actually present in the body of the artwork to define it. This is a dangerous precedent for any art or artist, and not something to be encouraged.
Unfortunately, none of the dangers I warned of were heeded by filmmaker Shane Salerno (both as writer and director), and, in fact, the worst aspects I descried were indulged to an obscene degree by the filmmaker, because 20013’s Salinger is a trite, rote, by numbers documentary that makes this mediocre to good, but easily caricatured writer into a supermarket tabloid figure, something one suspects the man actually desired.
The film features dozens of talking heads who ejaculate the worst clichés about writing (best writer of his generation, and so on), and these clueless folks include actors, directors, and writers, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Guare, Martin Sheen, Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, A. Scott Berg, and Gore Vidal. The people who were actually in the man’s life, which ended in 2010, at the age of 92, seem equally without insight, and they include the man’s children (daughter Margaret wrote a memoir on her father) and ex-lovers, such as writer Joyce Maynard (one of many fans the man bedded), who looks and acts like a two decades before version of passé party girl writer Elizabeth Wurtzel (who also penned a memoir on Salinger), and was dumped for a younger teen au pair that Salinger married. Unfortunately, there is not a single sentence of critical worth about the man’s writing uttered in this 123 minute long film.
Instead, there seems to be a tabloid feeding frenzy regarding the man’s ephebophilia, his hermitic nature, the claims that he was obsessed with World War Two (and ludicrous attempts to key every story penned- including his lone published novel, The Catcher In The Rye- which the film claims has sold 60 million copies, and 250,000 per year) into an attempt by Salinger to ‘deal’ with The War, even though his work is far more drenched in his privileged background than The War), married a Nazi sympathizer, ignored his children, never got over his first love, Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, and Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Oona O’Neill, and on and on. We see a number of obsessed fans who trot out their tales of stalking the writer because his mediocre work resonated with them, and then that is followed up with the claim that the book inspired three celebrity murder attempts- successful ones on actress Rebecca Schaeffer and musician John Lennon, and a failed one on President Ronald Reagan. Rumors abound that PBS has picked up this documentary for its American Masters series, but one seriously has to question why such a piece of trash was accepted into that series, unless they plan on cutting the sensationalism out and making it into a more fact-based hour long film.
The film simply has nothing new to say on the man and his writing that is not widely available elsewhere, and little is made of the man’s basic shallowness as an artist and man, despite the considerable time spent on Salinger’s supposed obsession with being published in The New Yorker magazine. Then there are the grandiloquent moments, such as the film’s soundtrack, the use of photographs surreptitiously taken of the man; reenactments of him typing in his ‘bunker’ or running down a stairwell after Catcher was first rejected by publishers; claims that Salinger rejected Hollywood heavyweights who wanted to turn catcher into a film-Billy Wilder and Elia Kazan- only to have Salinger put in his will that he will never allow it to be filmed, as long as it is in copyright; claims that banal footage of Salinger getting his mail or talking in France as ‘the only known footage’ of Salinger ‘before death’ and ‘at war;’ and so on. Of course, if being at war means laughing with chubby Parisians, well, I guess it is hell. To top it all off are the pronouncements, at film’s end, of the release of gobs of new writings by Salinger, to be posthumously published between 2015 and 2020, along with claims that his fictive clans- the Glasses and Caulfields, are the greatest American families in literature.
In the end, while a slickly made piece of cinema, Salerno’s Salinger is vapid and dull, a way too long infomercial for future Salinger releases, despite its attempt to take American Letters’ male version of Harper Lee (another grossly overrated writer) and sexify him up to extend his cult of personality. It fails and….(yawn)
If Salinger is a standard documentary, stylistically, crossbred with fluffy National Enquirer level journalistic values, then the 90 minute long Patience (After Sebald) is an interminably dull avant garde wannabe documentary, a hodgepodge of mediocre prose about World War two and the Holocaust, from 2011, by Grant Gee, on the German writer W.G. Sebald, who spent the bulk of his 57 years alive in the East Anglia portion of England, and was not, despite the film’s claim, a poet of any worth. Sebald was little known until the 1990s, when four books of his, most notably The Rings Of Saturn, engendered a cultish love of the man’s work which is far out of proportion with its philosophic anomy and mediocre prose stylings, which are read aloud by actor Jonathan Pryce. The film attempts to mimic the peregrinations of Sebald’s main character in Saturn, as he rambles around East Anglia.
The problem is while we rarely see talking heads, only hear their inane comments, the fact is that these folks are essentially no deeper not insightful than the Salinger folks. While Salinger’s work crossed boundaries, the fact of the matter is that writers like Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Jack London were doing the very same things Sebald was, over a century before- and I’m only listing Americans that many of these talking heads have either never heard of, much less read, despite all three being rather well known in their literary lives and afterlives. And, in terms of his prose writing, let’s just say that Sebald is no Loren Eiseley. And certainly not worthy of having his life’s meager output- both qualitatively and quantitatively, honored with a Nobel Prize, which some of the contributors ascribe was rumored to be in the works.
Yet, while most critics praise the film as not being like most documentaries, they tend to point out that it simply has no real focus. Talking head claims are tossed one after another, with no relation, and the excerpts from Sebald’s works do not mesh with the visuals nor the comments of the talking heads, who clearly do not know nor understand Sebald’s self-conscious and didactic writing, for they misinterpret some of the more baldy stated pieces with their own emotional biases. To make things worse, the film, near its end, even has one of the talking heads admit that he cannot really grasp Sebald’s work, but likes it, and that he is like most of those in the growing ‘Sebald cult,’ which cluelessly, and almost parodically, pronounces the man’s name as Zay-bäld, rather than the more natural See-bald. Then the filmmaker shows a series of photographs of fireworks set off at the place where Sebald died in an auto accident in 2001, and the resultant smoke shapes that are left as residue- one which the filmmaker childishly tries to superimpose with the face of the writer, as if a piss stain against a Mexican bar that looks like Jesus Christ’s visage, and garners pilgrims- a thing Sebald’s life and work are aborning, as absurd comparisons are made between Sebald and other writers, as well as inane things are posited from images published in Sebald’s books. The most obvious manifestation of this is in the film’s obscurantist title, which the director seems to claim refers to the game of patience, the British name for solitaire, in another Sebald novel. What this has to do with the film, other than needing to show patience with this stupefyingly insular and dull film, is a mystery, but one few, save the already deluded cultists, will care to resolve that, or this mess of a film.
Amazingly, for all its manifest flaws and absurd over the top tabloidism, out of these two poor documentaries on overrated writers of cultic import (neither even attempts to explain the hows and whys the prose does or does not work), if I had to choose one to recommend seeing over the other, I’d have to go with Salerno’s conventional Salinger, for, despite its many flaws, it does, at least, shed some basic light on aspects of its subject and his work, and, if one were utterly clueless as to who J.D. Salinger and W.G. Sebald were, only the screaming Salinger film will leave you with, at least, a decent syllabus. The Sebald film never coheres, and will just leave you drowsy.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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