J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, and perhaps the country’s most famous recluse, died at home at age 91. His classic novel narrated by a 16-year-old named Holden Caulfield as he wanders around New York before he has to tell his parents he has been expelled from prep school is one of the most widely-read books of the 20th century, and enormously influential on readers and on writers. Caulfield is cynical and alienated. He calls everyone “phony,” one reason teenagers identify with him so strongly. But the other reason they connect to him is the way he yearns not to be cynical and alienated, the way he wants to be a part of something, to help someone. The title comes from a fantasy he has of protecting children.
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.
Salinger would not allow his books to be made into movies, and I suspect that his literary executor will continue the prohibition. There is something quaint and appealing about the idea that Holden Caulfield will be for each of us our own individual and very personal vision.
But there are two movie connections worth mentioning. According to Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osborne, Salinger got the idea for his most famous character’s name from a theater marquee advertising the movie “Dear Ruth” and its stars, William Holden and Joan Caulfield.
And one of Salinger’s works was filmed. A short called “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” became a movie starring Susan Hayward called “My Foolish Heart.” The movie has so little connection to the story that it is easy to see why he decided not to have that happen again.
If I were going to get permission to make a movie based on Salinger’s writing, I would pick the short story, “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” about a soldier’s encounter with a precocious young girl. Salinger loved to write about precious children.
Holden Caulfield said,
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.
Certainly, The Catcher in the Rye made many readers feel that way. But if they thought about what they read, they did not have to; the book itself and its main character were there to catch those of us who felt no one understood us or felt like us and let us know that someone did.
Rotten Tomatoes has a great list of movies about the future. According to the movies, this year we should be traveling to the moons of Jupiter (“2010”), having Charlize Theron (and don’t forget the woman with hands for feet) in a post-apocalyptic 2011 (“Aeon Flux), all gone except for zombies and Will Smith in 2012 (“I am Legend”), waiting for Kevin Costner to deliver the mail in 2013 (“The Postman”) and for Snake Plissken to “Escape from LA,” getting hoverboards in 2014 (“Back to the Future II”), and oh, boy, androids dreaming of electric sheep in “Blade Runner” by 2019. Be sure to check out the full list.
As he continues to work through personal issues that seem to require expiation through his characters on screen, Mel Gibson, plays a Tom Craven, a Boston cop out for more than justice after his daughter is murdered. His face deeply lined, his hairline receding, just about all of his movie star glamour etched away, he is no more the larger-than-life hero of “Braveheart” and “Mad Max.” He is not a big man; we often see him standing next to bigger ones, contributing to the movie’s claustrophobic feeling. He does not have a big life. He is still in the house he has lived in for decades, with one bottle of good booze covered with dust and one person he cares about, his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic). He’s not much good at talking or for interacting with the complexities and ambiguities of the world. Emma teases him, perhaps a bit ruefully, that he doesn’t even know what her job is. But she knows he is safe. And so when she needs help, she comes home.
A couple of hours later, she is killed in a drive-by. The logical conclusion is that the culprit is someone who was after Tom, some bad guy he put away. But the use of logic is the first of many assumptions Tom will have to relinquish to understand what trouble Emma had gotten into and what he must do about it.
The movie is based on a Thatcher/Reagan-era British miniseries, itself perhaps inspired by the 1970’s American cinema of paranoia, lone individual against grand conspiracy movies like “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View.” This version reverses the nationalities; Yorkshire becomes Boston and the American with a shady past as a spook played by Joe Don Baker becomes a Brit with a cockney accent played by Ray Winstone as Jedburgh, the most compelling character in the film because we do know know why he seems to know everything, whose side he is on, or what he does. “I’m usually the guy who stops you connecting A and B,” he says.
Connecting A and B is what we look for in movies, at least studio movies with big stars, but we are perfectly happy to spend two hours figuring out what that connection is. If the murky intersections of various categories of bad guys makes that connection not entirely unexpected, there are a few good twists along the way. Director Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale” and the upcoming “Green Hornet” as well as the original BBC version of this story) keeps the tension taut and the action compelling. There are fine details, a too-smooth executive rolling his gold wedding band through his fingers as he pretends to be concerned, Tom off duty reaching instinctively for a gun that isn’t there. The build-up of Tom’s sense of urgency and the directness of his instincts counterposed with the murkiness of other characters’ motivations works well, too. He literally smashes through walls as he psychically smashes through the boundaries of his profession, of law, and even of rationality itself, ultimately acting on the purest of instinct, as he says, a man with nothing left to lose.
Both Tom and the man who plays him seem intent on expiating some transgression. Gibson is often drawn to roles that involve physical abuse and exposure down to the bone. Here that works well up to the very last scene, where Gibson the man seems to break away from the character with a final image that tells us more about the struggles of the Hollywood actor than the Boston cop and would take us out of the movie if it wasn’t already over.
Can you name the only family with three generations of Oscars? To make it even cosier, the grandparent and grandchild both won their Oscars for movies directed by the man in the middle, the son of one and the father of the other.
Here’s another hint: The third-generation Oscar-winner and her brother both appear in movies opening this week.
The first to answer correctly at firstname.lastname@example.org (put Oscar in the subject line) will win a DVD.