Monday, February 1, 2010

J.D. Salinger's Cultural Exchange

I'm glad that I read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye outside of any high school English class. Due to that fluke of good fortune, I was free to dip into Salinger’s tale of adolescent frustration without all the mythical baggage that comes with it. There's no question that his first novel had an indelibly profound impact on young readers (including very disturbed ones like Mark David Chapman). But the book’s influence also extended to movies as well (most notably in both The Graduate and Rushmore). But Salinger’s novel examined teenage misery with an acute eye. He didn’t enshrine his protagonist Holden Caulfield’s world view – rather he revealed that, in the world of ‘phonies,’ Holden was just as culpable as anyone he criticized. The Graduate (1967) and Rushmore (1998), in their blatant attempt to win over the outsider adolescent fringe of two very different generations, chose to pander to youthful narcissism instead. Both movies dubbed their rebel heroes as vulnerable, but they were largely self-righteous. They made dubious claims, too; since the adult world is automatically corrupt, by extension, it also corrupts its young.

Critic Alfred Kazin once wrote that Salinger chose the world of teenagers for his book to provide "a consciousness [among youths]…to speak for them and virtually to them, in a language that is peculiarly honest…with a vision of things that capture their most secret judgments of the world.” But the book questions that judgment by not allowing the reader to take refuge in Holden’s accusations. Rushmore was (as a friend of mine once wisely commented) like The Catcher in the Rye - if written by Holden Caulfield. No director ever truly got the spirit of Salinger right – although Alan J. Pakula came pretty close in the rarely seen The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), an adaptation of John Nichols 1965 novel about an eccentric teenager named “Pookie” Adams (Liza Minnelli) who experiences a painful coming-of-age during college life when she gets involved with a shy, young man (Wendell Burton).

Wendell Burton and Liza Minnelli

Although The Catcher in the Rye is a wonderfully rich book that has earned its reputation as one of the great American novels about growing into adulthood, it isn’t my favourite Salinger. I reserve that place for Franny and Zooey (1961), one of his many examinations of the eccentric Glass family (which include the short stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters”). The Glass family are a precocious clan torn apart by its sense of isolation and traumatized by the suicide of the oldest son, Seymour, their resident sage. The children, who once made radio appearances as child geniuses, create a unique bond among themselves. (Director Wes Anderson, who made Rushmore, also tried to evoke Franny and Zooey in his prosaic and whimsical The Royal Tenenbaums.) Franny and Zooey is a combination of two novellas. The first follows Franny Glass, a university student who is deeply troubled by the book, The Way of the Pilgrim, which is about achieving spiritual illumination through the chanting of a continuous prayer. In the second novella, she goes home to recover from a nervous breakdown brought on by her desperate need to understand the prayer. Her brother, Zooey, confronts her, helping Franny to face the existential burden being carried by their family as well as the wisdom that their elder brother Seymour left them. (Seymour’s suicide is covered in “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.”) The book is painfully funny. Frayed nerves get plucked by siblings who know each other so well that their banter resembles baggy-pants comedy routines conceived by Alan Watts. But Franny and Zooey is also a rich and moving account about the claiming of spiritual solace – and its cost.

Salinger remained a recluse until his death last week, but he also famously denied anyone the right to do any adaptations of his work. But he likely never considered that some young Iranian film director named Dariush Mehrjui, who was spellbound by Franny and Zooey, would make a movie adaptation in 1995 that was set in his own homeland. The movie, Pari, was also about a young girl who is a student of literature. Like Franny, Pari (Niki Karimi) wrestles with her own spiritual crisis after reading the story of a 5th-century mystic who lost everything in a fire. That book is a legacy from Assad, Pari's older brother, who committed suicide by burning himself alive. Her youngest sibling Dadashy tries to dissuade her from following Assad's path and to resurrect her taste for life.

I was lucky to have caught Pari while attending a series on Iranian cinema that same year. At first, not knowing that Pari was based on Franny and Zooey, I was puzzled that I seemed to recognize the story. Within the first hour, however, I realized exactly what Mehrjui was doing – and what he produced was a remarkably intelligent and thoughtful adaptation of Salinger’s book, something he described as “a cultural exchange.” It’s a shame that Salinger didn’t extend the good will back to Mehrjui. Once his lawyers caught wind of Pari, which was to be screened at the Lincoln Centre in 1998, Salinger had the film pulled from distribution. Pari remains in a cultural abyss.

It’s sad that Salinger has now left us, but the good news might be that his estate may soon liberate film-makers to bring his work to the screen. Who knows? Maybe Pari might even see the light of day again. That would be good news indeed. After all, Salinger's American inheritors so far have failed to capture the author's greatest gifts and insights in their own movies. It took an Iranian, coming to terms honestly with his own culture’s trappings and enlightenments, to finally get it right.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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