What’s the difference between a biopic and a documentary? For the makers of Salinger, the widely-derided documentary about the reclusive novelist, author of Catcher In The Rye, there is evidently a certain fluidity in the distinction. Producer Harvey Weinstein has decided to withdraw the first version – variously hailed by the reviewers as “awful”, “lurid”, “shallow” and “phony” – recut it and add new footage before booting it back into cinemas for another charge at the box office.
Given that the initial release was limited to New York and Los Angeles and the new version will roll out across 62 US cities, the enterprise might be regarded as a giant test preview. In responding to the initial reception in this manner, Weinstein and director Shane Salerno are adhering to the principles set by the cult exploitation filmmaker Roger Corman – who would cheerfully withdraw an unsuccessful movie, add a few more scenes of topless girls and ultraviolence and send it out again with a different title. In cases like these, the line between sound business sense and shameless hucksterism is very fine indeed.
Irrespective of the merits of Salerno’s film, which clearly contains some valuable information – like the revelation that there are five unpublished works in Salinger’s safe – one wonders how viable it is to release another version of the same documentary so soon after its initial release. Clearly, after nine years of research, Hollywood screenwriter Salerno (Armageddon, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem) has amassed far more material than could comfortably be contained within a two-hour format and it is just possible that more illuminating sequences or interviews were left out. Technology is on his side in this case; before non-linear editing systems existed, cutting and splicing celluloid was time-consuming and costly. Now, Salerno and “Scissorhands” Weinstein can fiddle with their product ad infinitum.
Will critics bother to review another version of a documentary mere months after the original version? Will audiences bother to return to cinemas just to check out extra footage? And if the real problem of Salinger is the style in which it is presented – including a melodramatic score and a fantasy reconstruction of the “author” on an empty stage smoking and typing – are a few extra talking heads and photos going to help?
Given that the documentary is just one part of a mini-industry that includes a monumental biography of the reclusive author by Salerno and David Shields and a putative feature film, it is clear that Weinstein & Co see this as part of a long game.
But given the ready-made audience and the paucity of hard information about the subject, it might have been better to have abandoned the documentary and gone straight for the biopic where being elastic with the facts and filling in gaps with imaginative reconstructions have some legitimacy.
I can’t help feeling that Salinger himself would have preferred the masquerade of fiction to the banal parade of facts and fans.