Catching in the Wry

Through the looking Glass: The royally ripped-off Tenenbaums
James Hamilton

[The appeal of writing Pulp Fiction was that] I could get to do what a contemporary writer does: introduce into his book a secondary character who appeared in an earlier book, something like the Glass family that [J.D.] Salinger imagined, and whose members you find move from one novel to the next. [His stories] all add up to one big story.

--Quentin Tarantino, 1994

Me, I could never really get into J.D. Salinger. It was something about the close proximity of his work to both John Hinckley and The Official Preppie Handbook. The first-person quality of The Catcher in the Rye also put me off--and it wasn't until recently that I picked up Salinger's short stories. The reason I finally did was in order to investigate a curious trend: one hotshot Gen X movie director after another citing Salinger's Glass Family stories as the inspiration for his magnum opus. Huh? Film geeks drawing from the well of a bunch of neurotic New Englanders who dine in "eating clubs" and promise their toddlers the olive out of the martini? What gives?

Here, with a nod to Salinger's Nine Stories, I present a number of explanations.

I. Film geeks don't read long books without pictures--but most of them do attend high school, or at least part of it. And everybody who attends high school has a few things foisted on him: The Red Badge of Courage (too remote to influence the film geek), three or four Shakespeares (don't get me started...), and The Catcher in the Rye--which, for many film geeks, provides their first awareness of the Literary Effect. Where movies narrate events for raw sensation, literature tells stories in order to tell other, hidden stories. This can be a shocking, elating thing for the film geek--and not something easily learned from George A. Romero's "Living Dead" trilogy.

II. Salinger's work is mired in adolescence--and, coincidentally or not, it makes for a relatively quick and punchy read. The signature Salingerian device is the entertainment of the masses with dime-store details--a teen hottie waiting six rings to pick up the phone, a fake bohemian boy's echo of his dad's crusty "For Christ's sake!"--culminating in a sudden note of discord and violence. And this technique isn't completely unfamiliar to the film geek--at least not to the one who has caught reruns of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

III. For Tarantino, the first and most imaginative Gen X interpreter of Salinger, it was the author's personal universe of interconnected characters that seemed most worth emulating. After all, if you're a hungry video-store clerk hoping to make a name for yourself in Hollywood, why conceive of a bunch of little movies when you can dream of making one infinitely huge and humbling movie? In Salinger's stories, the Glass family--an oddball assortment of WACs, supposed ex-vaudevillians, talent agents, TV freak-show personalities, and neurotic brainiacs--flit in and out of decades' worth of prose. Similarly, Tarantino's oeuvre contains a family of fictional buddies: the deadly Vic and Vincent Vega, the powerful Mickey Knox, and the diabolical Jack Scagnetti (named after an L.A. talent agent), the latter of whom connotes evil in Tarantino's films the same way that "Vergerus" does in Ingmar Bergman's.

IV. For Paul Thomas Anderson, who may have made the most obnoxious use of Salingerian tropes, Franny and Zooey allow him the perfect opportunity to note what a drag it is that parents just don't understand. Blatantly ripping off the conceit of the Glass kids being star contestants on a quiz show called It's a Wise Child, Anderson has Magnolia's boy genius Stanley Spector suffering through the sinisterly titled What Do Kids Know?--in which a child-molesting host cracks up when poor Stanley pees his pants. What appears in Salinger's world as a wry, offhand joke--the contrast between the willed childishness of Eisenhower pop culture and the wisdom of the Glass children--becomes, in Magnolia, an alternarock whine.

V. For another plagiarist Anderson by the name of Wes, Salinger is simply a shortcut to writing an original screenplay. Near the end of this Anderson's repellently autobiographical portrait of Tortured and Precocious Genius, The Royal Tenenbaums, the old rascal who heads up the titular clan says, "I just want you all to know that I have probably enjoyed these last six days more than any time in my entire life." Then the narrator chimes in: "Royal Tenenbaum was shocked to discover that what he had just said was true." Wow! What a moment! The Little Lord Fauntleroy of American cinema finally grows up, saying something more about the human condition than that the color of a Sixties rec room is really cool! I was stunned...until I picked up Salinger's "Franny," in which the same magnificent commentary is uttered by Salinger almost verbatim.

VI. For someone who thinks of himself as a tortured genius, the Salingerian concept of a family of tortured geniuses is appealing enough by itself. But it's telling that Wes Anderson places less emphasis on the nervousness and idiosyncrasy of the clan than on their test scores. (Come to think of it, both Andersons seem to want to dress up as Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius for Halloween.)

VII. Young master Wes has also taken a fancy to Salinger's notion of rich, egghead life in Manhattan circa who-knows-when. But is that all there is to Salinger? Critic David Elliott wittily described the experience of The Royal Tenenbaums as like "being at a cocktail party where everyone's flipping through old New Yorkers, looking for the cartoons." Indeed, for Wes Anderson, Salinger's oeuvre is a catalog-cum-flipbook given a loving thumbing. The director fills his screen with musty old board games stacked six feet high, and with 1968 paperbacks that have just the right font and just the right post-beach-reading curl at the edges; he gets the wallpaper synched with the pajamas, and makes everyone wear the same damn clothes through the whole movie. But the characters are carbon copies.

VIII. The notion of paying homage is a convenient one for pretentious plagiarists. But Wes Anderson's form of homage does the honored one no favors at all. Salinger's stories aren't pseudo-highbrow reworkings of Eloise, delighting us with the sharp uniforms of the doormen at the Plaza; they're small parables about the possibility of spirituality's existence within our own ridiculous, jargon-filled, ball-game-in-the-background lives. Whatever they are, they aren't the pretext for nostalgia-mad art direction.

IX. Oh, yeah--I almost forgot the other Gen X auteur who shares, in a less obvious way, many traits with J.D. Salinger. This director's works are likewise filled with suburban anecdotal detail, and it's difficult to tell whether they're intended affectionately or viciously. Outsiderdom and authenticity are also of the utmost importance to him--and he, too, is a master of the shocking revelation. The filmmaker, of course, is Todd Solondz (Happiness). But let's not speak his name too loudly: Salinger deserves to live out his last days in peace.

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