My Bionic Pet Premieres on PBS Tonight and Online Tomorrow

Chris P. Bacon takes a spin on his home turf in NATURE: MY BIONIC PET.

Chris P. Bacon takes a spin on his home turf in NATURE: MY BIONIC PET. Photo courtesy of Kevin Bachar. c 2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

If, like me, you’ve been dodging the depressing  influx of documentaries about the decimation and mistreatment of whales, dolphins, chimps, elephants and other endangered animal species, I suggest you tune in the latest episode of NATURE on PBS tonight (Weds., April 9, at 8:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings. ) for some much better news. 

In a mere 55 minutes, My Bionic Pet will lift your spirits and your respect for the animal kingdom and some remarkably good people who are giving physically challenged animals a second chance at life.  The film, produced by Kevin Bachar and Andy Seestedt for THIRTEEN, highlights the work being done in the U.S., from coast to coast, and Canada, by some dedicated veterinarians, prosthetic specialists and animal guardians to transform the lives of disabled animals. 

The animals featured here–ranging from dogs, a pig and pony to an alligator, llama and a swan–have through birth deformity, disease, mistreatment or accidents been left without functioning limbs, beaks or tails.  But all show remarkable resilience when fitted with prostheses.  The meticulous creation of their prostheses is case driven and often a matter of trial and error; the tie between human and animal anatomy and technologies is reciprocal and a necessity. 

Molly, one of the stars of MY BIONIC PET.

Molly, one of the stars of NATURE: MY BIONIC PET. Photo courtesy of Lizette Gesuden. c 2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

The transformation in the lives of these animals (and those of their caregivers and guardians) is immediate and joyous to behold.  You’ll fall in love with Chris. P. Bacon, the adorable piglet who now zips around on his wheelie and is the subject of the first in a series of children’s books published by Hay House. There’s Molly, the pony whose remarkable survival, from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and her subsequent post-storm attack by a dog, has led to her therapeutic work with disabled children in New Orleans.  And certified therapy dog Journey, born without a front left paw, is a welcome guest at a Florida children’s hospital and an inspiration and comfort to adult human amputees adjusting to prosthetics. 

And perhaps just as moving are the humans here who will inspire you with their love and dedication to these animals.  In the end you may ask, “Can prosthetics make animals happy?”  My Bionic Pet answers that question. 

Journey at Westcoast Brace and Limb in Tampa.

Journey inspires visitors at Westcoast Brace and Limb in Tampa, FL. Photo courtesy of Kevin Bachar. c 2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

It is clear from the evidence presented in this film, both through the extraordinary example of its subjects and the articulate input from caregivers and specialists, that the animals’ quality of life and emotional well-being are elevated and even restored with prosthetic intervention.  And in the end, if we, as their guardians, can do it, then aren’t we obligated to try?  I think after watching this film, your answer will be a resounding “Yes!” –Judith Trojan

NATURE: My Bionic Pet premieres on PBS on Wednesday, April 9, at 8:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts.  After its debut, My Bionic Pet will be available on DVD and for online streaming at www.pbs.org/nature  For information about the Chris P. Bacon children’s book series, check out http://www.hayhouse.com/chris-p-bacon-1

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Finding Vivian Maier and 20 Feet from Stardom

Coincidentally, two of the best documentaries I’ve seen lately focus on women who spent a good part, if not all, of their creative lives hiding in plain sight. 

Director Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom capped a year of accolades with a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. The film shines a long overdue light on the talented singers (predominantly women) who back up star performers.  While Darlene Love may be the most recognizable 20 Feet from Stardom Postername here, she is only one of several equally gifted vocal stylists, including Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, the Waters Family and Tata Vega, who recap their backstories behind-the-scenes in the shadow of high profile stars.  All are music industry veterans.

20 Feet from Stardom is an entertaining eye-opener that incorporates reflections on the singers’ career paths, the rewards and drawbacks of their musical niche, and their resilience and triumphs as they dodged exploitation and forged solo acts.  Once introduced to these engaging artists, you’ll not soon forget them or their journeys, and you’ll be encouraged to follow them as they continue to build their solo and recording careers. 

Darlene Love, for instance, is highly visible now in her own right on tour and, of course, during her annual Christmas showstopping gig on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”  And Judith Hill recently sat in with The Roots on “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon.”

Thanks to director Morgan Neville and his talented team, these artists, who spent the bulk of their careers “20 feet from stardom,” have been given a chance to shine in their own light while they are still vital performers. 

Unfortunately, in her lifetime, street photographer Vivian Maier (1926-2009) never had that chance.  Enter John Maloof, an enterprising young historian and avid auction buff, who became her champion.  While it’s questionable whether Vivian, an eccentric loner, would have agreed to Maloof’s work on her behalf, it’s clear that without his dauntless sleuthing, the mystery surrounding Vivian’s unconventional life and her prolific body of work would have been lost forever. 

Vivian Maier.  c Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection.

Vivian Maier. c Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection.

Maloof tells his story and hers in Finding Vivian Maier, a riveting new documentary he directed and produced with Charlie Siskel (critic Gene Siskel’s nephew).  Vivian spent most of her working life as a nanny for wealthy families; she was a world-traveller with no apparent friends or family ties, who though born in New York spoke with a vaguely French-Germanic accent and, despite an ever-present Rolleiflex strapped around her neck, never discussed or showed her photographs to anyone and hid the negatives, contact sheets and undeveloped rolls of film in storage lockers.  

And but for a twist of fate–at auction, for less than $400, Maloof acquired a trunk full of negatives by an unknown photographer–Vivian’s work was discovered and her life and photographic legacy became John Maloof’s as well.  The woman who died a penniless pack rat, scavenging food from dumpsters, is now recognized as one of the greatest photographers of the mid-20th century.

It’s a story made all the more remarkable by Maloof’s dogged efforts to uncover Vivian’s backstory, scan and print her negatives, and archive and promote her photographs to galleries and museums both here and abroad. 

New York City, circa 1955.  c Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection.

New York City, circa 1955. c Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection.

Although this is his story as well, John Maloof, to his credit, is never an intrusive presence in the film.  By subsequently piecing together Vivian’s life story via her personal papers and her obsessively hoarded negatives, 8mm and 16mm film footage and audiotapes, Maloof was able to follow her paper trail to the families in Chicago and New York for whom Vivian worked as a nanny in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. 

The parents and children, now elderly and middle-aged respectively, provide insight into Vivian’s personality and hidden life; but in the end her story remained a mystery to them as well.  None of them ever saw a friend or family member or her photos, and none of them apparently ever asked about them. They hired her and sometimes fired her. 

Memories of a loving caregiver are clouded by recollections of abusive and strange behavior.  Vivian was fond of photographing her clients’ children and their friends during memorable, madcap adventures, but she had a predilection for hoarding newspapers and padlocking her private rooms in their homes, which proved hazardous. 

Chicago street kids.   c Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection.

Chicago street kids.
c Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection.

Maloof’s sleuthing also took him to the French Alps, where Vivian’s family had roots and a few old timers remember her and now proudly embrace her notoriety. Throughout the film, examples of her more than 100,000 photographs reveal a strong eye for the drama and denizens of mid-century street life (especially in Chicago and New York).  Her framing and sharp focus on young and old, and their juxtaposition to their immediate surroundings (reminiscent of Weegee, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz) shows an especially keen sensitivity to the human condition.  

John Maloof has produced with his detective work and massive archival mission and with the fascinating film, Finding Vivian Maier, the latter alongside co-director/producer Charlie Siskel, an impressive legacy that many of us take a lifetime if ever to realize.  Thankfully, his destiny and Vivian Maier’s were fated to connect.  We should all be so lucky.

20 Feet from Stardom (Rated PG-13) is currently available on DVD, iTunes, On-Demand and Netflix.  Finding Vivian Maier opened theatrically in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, last Friday, March 28, with a national roll-out beginning today, Friday, April 4.  It will also be available nationwide to over 50 million homes on Sundance Selects’ video-on-demand platform.  For more examples of Vivian Maier’s work, be sure to check out www.vivianmaier.com  –Judith Trojan

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Women on the Verge of an Oscar

86OscarPoster_Spotlight

c AMPAS

“All I ever wanted was to find my son Anthony. I was never able to tell him that I loved him.” –Philomena Lee

2013 was a fascinating year for women in the movies.  I’m especially encouraged by the unusually rich slate of female contenders and characters reflected in Oscar’s Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress pool this time around.  With the exception of Lupita Nyong’o’s period specific character in 12 Years a Slave, the predominant Oscar-nominated roles examine contemporary lives and challenges that women on all levels of social strata can commiserate with and relate to.  How refreshing to find no Queen Elizabeths, larger-than-life political figures or romantic literary heroines in the mix … or Avatars for that matter. 

Judi Dench, as Philomena Lee, grapples with the tragic loss of her son, faith and forgiveness in PHILOMENA.  The Weinstein Company.

Judi Dench, as Philomena Lee, grapples with the tragic loss of her son, faith and forgiveness in PHILOMENA. The Weinstein Company.

While that’s a step in the right direction (more meaty, non-costume-driven roles for women!), one could question the sober prevailing theme that seems to drive the characters played by Best Actress nominees Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Judi Dench (Philomena), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), Sandra Bullock (Gravity) and Amy Adams (American Hustle), and Best Supporting Actress nominees Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), June Squibb (Nebraska), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle). 

Whether their challenges relate to their significant others –a child, husband, father, boyfriend–or their social standing, religious beliefs, finances, emotional stability or physical survival, their characters all have to grapple with loss of some kind.  How they come to terms with that loss and manage to transcend it … or not … gives these women and the actresses who play them a platform from which to explore and mine a rich fund of material for further discussion by women’s groups in schools, universities and religious settings, as well as film acting classes.

Blue Jasmine 2

Cate Blanchett’s brilliant performance as an emotionally fragile socialite brought down by her philandering, corrupt husband in BLUE JASMINE should be required viewing in film acting classes for years to come. Sony Pictures Classics.

My Oscar picks for 2013 Best Actress and Supporting Actress notwithstanding (Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively), I encourage you to kickstart “Oscar Sunday” by catching Mo Rocca’s interview with legendary Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint on CBS News Sunday Morning tomorrow morning (March 2) at 9:00 a.m. ET. 

Currently appearing in Winter’s Tale opposite Collin Farrell, Ms. Saint received her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1955 for On the Waterfront

Eva Marie Saint with Mo Rocca EMS3

Legendary Oscar winner Eva Maria Saint refreshes TV commentator Mo Rocca’s memory on CBS NEWS SUNDAY MORNING.

Still radiant at 89, Ms. Saint shares memories of her happy 62-year marriage, the compromises she had to make to juggle child rearing with building a successful movie career, and her reflections on notable leading men and the Oscars, then and now.  Don’t miss it! 

And take the time to revisit Eva Marie Saint‘s gritty performance in On the Waterfront and her about-face as femme fatale Eve Kendall opposite Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Ms. Saint turns 90 in July and is a talented, vital artist who deserves to continue plying her craft in substantial, Oscar-worthy roles.  Directors take note!–Judith Trojan  

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Don’t Go Leno! Another NBC-atastrophe in the Works

Friends or Foes?  Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon Make Nice. (NBC)

Too soon for the torch to be passed? Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon make nice.

I’ve been a diehard late night talk show fan for most of my life and, until now, I’ve considered The Tonight Show the gold standard.  I’ve watched Jack and Johnny and Jay consistently.  I’ve sat in the audience during Conan, Merv and Johnny’s New York runs.  And I never missed Dick Cavett and especially tune in Dave to catch his banter with Regis, Brian Williams, Tom Hanks, Martin Short and various political pundits.  I’ve also regularly watched Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night show.

Every one of these guys has their own special brand of talent and appeal; and Jay Leno, who sadly and unjustly was forced to say goodbye last night for the second time in four years, was and will continue to be one of the great ones. He made me laugh out loud every night (except last night).  His 22-year run at the helm of The Tonight Show was a ratings bonanza for NBC, a network that has been ratings challenged in all other timeslots … except late night, thanks to Jay. 

Although no one comes close to replicating Johnny Carson’s magic and appeal, I am and always will be a big fan of Jay Leno.  I was heartbroken when NBC “blindsided” Jay and gave him five years to finish his run and make way for Conan O’Brien in 2009. Despite the fact that Jay was consistently late night’s ratings champ, NBC wanted to keep Conan, who apparently threatened to bolt the network when his show’s contract ran out if he didn’t get to host The Tonight Show.  NBC’s response?  Let’s kick our ratings phenom, Jay Leno, to the curb to make way for a guy who supposedly appealed to a younger audience? 

So where was that “younger demographic” when Conan O’Brien hit The Tonight Show boards? Conan failed miserably as The Tonight Show host, not because Leno wanted his seat back, but because nobody watched Conan.  He was a terrible choice for that slot: his quirky, acerbic humor was ill-suited for The Tonight Show; any idiot could have figured that out in advance.  After eight months, he was gone.  But who got bad press for that fiasco?  Jay Leno. 

tonightshowwjayleno24-e1365013967550It’s now four years later and, despite Jay’s phenomenal 22-year run at the top, once again NBC has booted Jay for a younger guy, Jimmy Fallon.  This time, there’s no reason to believe that Jimmy threatened to leave NBC, where’s he’s been content for five years on his own show and for years before that as a featured player on Saturday Night Live.   

I’ve been particularly flabbergasted by some of the media naysayers who chalk Leno off as boring, middle of the road or too old to continue. It’s obvious that these pundits haven’t really watched Jay recently or considered why he pulls super high ratings.  It’s clear to me and to his millions of fans (of all ages) that he’s not only a good, honest guy but that his humor is media savvy and speaks to the moment, whether political or cultural.  Jay’s monologue is always hilarious, night after night, a feat that no one else comes even close to replicating.  Nor do his competitors match the level of his writing as a whole, his delivery or his genuine grace with his guests. While Dave Letterman’s monologue may be topical, it is short on laughs; and Jimmy Fallon’s is still a work in progress. 

I especially find it hard to understand the element of ageism that seems to have kickstarted this debacle.  When Jay hit the streets for his many off-site segments (e.g., “Jay Walking” and his visits to local apartment complexes to engage residents in film or music spoofs), his affection for and appeal to young and old alike in those instances is obvious.  His popular comic routines (“Headlines,” “Photo Booth” and “Pump Casting”) were always fresh, funny and a match for any of Johnny Carson’s classic bits.   

I’ve watched Jimmy Fallon regularly, and he looks to be a good guy who doesn’t deserve to be pitted against Jay.  He’s a remarkable mimic, especially of notable musicians, who visit often.  His talented band, the Roots, are willing players in various skits.  His co-writer sidekick, Higgins, is crass but plays well off Jimmy; and Jimmy’s cast of goofy regulars are comical nut jobs.  Jimmy’s strong suit continues to be his musical segments, which have been clever and entertaining.  But while his ongoing bro-mance with Justin Timberlake, his shticks like “Thank You Notes,” “Hashtags,” and “Celebrity Whispers” and game-playing on first or second go-round can be hilarious, they quickly wear thin.  Why?  Because they’re essentially juvenile.

And, so far, Jimmy’s not an interviewer. He gushes over every guest, and it’s tedious and sometimes painful (Hello, Emma Thompson!) to watch.  I’ll be switching over to Dave when Jimmy’s guests start arriving, until Jimmy gets serious. 

Jay Leno’s final show last night was extremely touching. Jay was uncharacteristically sentimental and teary as he recalled his 22-year Tonight Show timeline that, early on, saw the passing of his parents and his brother.  He made clear his devoted attachment to his long-serving staff who became his surrogate family.  Leno’s loss will leave a painful gap in millions of lives across America and in Jay’s life as well.  

Jay Leno's closing show.  Some famous guests gathered to wish Jay "farewell." Photo: Stacie McChesney/NBC.

Jay Leno’s closing show circa 2014. Some famous fans gathered to bid Jay “farewell.” Photo: Stacie McChesney/NBC.

While I’m kind of glad that The Tonight Show will be back in New York, I’ll really miss Jay and laughing out loud every night, and so will millions of his fans. Do we really need to slog through producer Lorne Michaels’ Tonight Show clone of Saturday Night Live every night when SNL itself has been a real dud lately? 

I will never understand NBC’s idiocy and shameful insensitivity to Jay and his fans (most especially NBC’s snub of the so-called “older demographic”).  Hey, NBC!  Baby Boomers are major consumers of new technology, too, and guess what?  We know how to change the channel.  To quote one of Jay Leno‘s most famous lines (to actor Hugh Grant after a major “goof”), NBC… “what the heck were you thinking?” –Judith Trojan

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Pete Seeger: The Power of Song To Be Rebroadcast on PBS

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted, “there are no second acts in American lives,” has clearly become a cliché in this age of uber-reinvention; and there is no better example of the latter than Pete Seeger, who defied that cliché well into his ninth “act.” 

Pete Seeger (1919 - 2014)
Pete Seeger (1919 – 2014)

The singer, songwriter, political and labor activist, environmentalist and champion and revivalist of America’s folk music died of natural causes on January 27, at age 94.

If you’re in need of a hero and a reminder that we all have the power to raise our voices to implement positive change, be sure to check out the PBS schedule of American Masters in your region for in memoriam rebroadcasts of director Jim Brown’s powerful 2008 documentary profile, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.   (Check local listings nationally.  New York metro area WNET/THIRTEEN airdates include Friday, January 31, @ 10:30 p.m. and Saturday, February 1, @ 2:00 p.m. E.T.) 

For easy access, the film now also streams online at the permalink http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/pete-seeger/full-film-pete-seeger-the-power-of-song/2864/  

The film incorporates a wealth of researched photos and archival footage of Seeger’s life and times, as well as reflections from Pete, his family members, folk historians and musicians with names like Dylan, Springsteen, Guthrie, Baez, Paxton and Smothers. Tommy Smothers provides an especial reminder of how important “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was in shining a light on hot button issues and demanding that Seeger deserved airtime despite his 17-year ban from broadcast TV.   

And, of course, the film is resplendent with music, the music that Seeger wrote, adapted and/or saved from oblivion, music that defines the passion of the man and the history of the nation that he loved.  Seeger’s driving mission was his belief that music (most especially folk music that drew from our nation’s labor, political and ethnic roots) could draw and bind people together of all ages, races and nationalities to end war, clean up the environment and eliminate inequality, causes that he knew would benefit our communities, our nation and our planet in the long run. 

On the road with Pete and his banjo.

Pete Seeger “knew how to get a crowd singing.”

The son of a concert violinist and musicologist, Seeger raised his voice and his weapon of choice–the banjo–during the pre-WWII labor movement, the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, and the Civil Rights’ and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He marshalled through tough periods that saw him blacklisted (despite his service during WWII) by HUAC, a tragic setback that derailed his popular chart-topping group, The Weavers, and a lucrative career on broadcast TV.  But he never stopped travelling the country and entreating crowds–he especially loved audiences of children and college students–to sing along.

The visionary, a lifelong non-drinker and non-smoker, lived long enough to see the seeds of his life’s work bloom.  In 1994, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor (clips from these events are replayed in this film); he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996; his numerous Grammy Awards include a Lifetime Achievement nod in 1993 and Grammys for his albums and songs as recently as 2009 and 2011; and he sang at the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American President.  And, most especially, despite the early naysayers and against almost impossible odds, he relished the clean-up of the once toxic Hudson River thanks to the work of his Clearwater initiative.

I defy anyone who cares about the man, his music and his message, to watch the last 10 minutes of Pete Seeger: The Power of Song with a dry eye.  I was blown away by director Jim Brown‘s earlier film, The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time (1982), which won top honors at the American Film Festival when I was on staff.  And, most recently, as the director of The Christopher Awards, I was thrilled to celebrate Jim Brown and Pete’s family when we honored American Masters–Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, with a Christopher Award during our 60th anniversary gala in New York on April 16, 2009. My only regret that night was that Pete was unable to join us in person as he was called away at the last minute to care for his devoted wife, Toshi, who was ailing. Toshi passed away in July 2013, just days before their 70th anniversary.

For in memoriam rebroadcasts of American Masters–Pete Seeger: The Power of Song on PBS in your region, check local listings.  (New York metro area WNET/THIRTEEN airdates include Friday, January 31, @ 10:30 p.m. and Saturday, February 1, @ 2:00 p.m. E.T.)  Or watch at your leisure at the permalink  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/pete-seeger/full-film-pete-seeger-the-power-of-song/2864/  –Judith Trojan

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Salinger Director’s Cut to Premiere Exclusively on PBS

“This is my definitive version of the film.”–Shane Salerno, Director/Producer, SALINGER

The Catcher in the Rye was published by Little, Brown in 1951 to great fanfare.  Its author, J. D. Salinger, and his protagonist, Holden Caulfield, became overnight cult figures.  Apparently, this was a mixed blessing for Salinger.  At the time, I was happily engrossed by The Bobbsey Twins and missed the hoopla.  Years later, when Catcher landed on my high school recommended “reading list, ” I frankly was still too young and ill-equipped to appreciate it.

J. D. Salinger in 1952. The limelight never became him.  Photo courtesy Antony DiGesu.

J. D. Salinger circa 1952. The limelight never became him. Photo courtesy Antony DiGesu.

However, as the years passed, I became fascinated by the myths surrounding Salinger and his reclusive eccentricities–all conjecture.  Whether The Catcher in the Rye was the seminal text of your youth or not, I encourage you to tune in PBS tonight (Tuesday, January 21, 9:00 p.m. E.T. check local listings) as American Masters launches its 28th season with the director’s cut of Salinger, a riveting documentary profile of enigmatic author J. D. Salinger (1919-2010). 

Despite its headline-grabbing international festival premiere and limited theatrical release last year, the film’s exclusive domestic TV rights were secured by American Masters from the get-go and include 15-minutes of additional footage. This “director’s cut,” is the end-product of an exhaustive 10-year exploration of Salinger’s life and work by producer/director Shane Salerno, who also co-authored the film’s companion book published by Simon & Schuster. 

Like the minions who have tried and failed to personally connect or, if former colleagues or lovers, reconnect with Salinger, Salerno had his work cut out for him.  The filmmaker faced almost insurmountable obstacles to get his subject’s story on film.  A screenwriter with action adventure screenplays to his credit, Salerno most recently co-wrote and executive produced Oliver Stone’s Savages

Interestingly, I found that my visceral reaction to Salinger, a documentary with seamless reenactments, called to mind my initial response to Oliver Stone’s dramatic film, JFK.  Both films make the most of grand cinematic flourishes (stirring music, editing, cinematography and a pastiche of fascinating characters) to bring closure to mysteries that may never be solved.

In Salinger, the filmmaker does a good job of turning fiction into fact, as far as it goes, by drawing out a large number of former friends, neighbors, colleagues, lovers and famous fans whose reminiscences are sewn into the fabric of a brilliantly edited and well-orchestrated (music by Lorne Balfe) portrait.  Cinematographer and co-producer Buddy Squires is a longtime Ken Burns collaborator, and his influence shows here, especially in the extensive use of World War II photos and footage, much of it horrific, that provide extraordinary insight into Salinger’s psyche, work and guarded lifelong friendships with his Army buddies.

"The Four Musketeers": J.D. Salinger (left) and his WWII buddies.  Photo courtesy denise Fitzgerald.

“The Four Musketeers.” J. D. Salinger (left) and his WWII buddies. Photo courtesy Denise Fitzgerald.

As a young man, despite his comfortable Park Avenue upbringing, a blossoming love affair with Eugene O’Neill’s 18-year-old daughter, Oona, and his obsession to publish in The New Yorker, Salinger enlisted in the Army.  His lengthy tour took him to the beaches of Normandy, the forest of Hurtgen, the desolation of Dachau and a nervous breakdown.  His postwar service included ferreting out and interrogating Nazis.  

It was the worst of times, made worse by Oona’s sudden marriage during his tour to 53-year-old Charlie Chaplin.  At the end of the war, Salinger also ended up in a short-lived, misguided marriage to a young Nazi sympathizer whom he brought to the States.  It’s clear that his war experiences colored his work (he wrote Catcher throughout his tour) and that his heartbreak over losing Oona during this time probably drove his lifelong attraction to teenagers who shared an obvious resemblance to Oona.

The only known photo of Salinger at work during WWII on The Catcher in the Rye. Photo courtesy: Denise Fitzgerald.

The only known photo of Salinger at work during WWII on THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Photo courtesy Denise Fitzgerald.

Two of these women speak candidly in the film:  Jean Miller, whom Salinger met and befriended when she was just 14, and notorious Joyce Maynard, whose provocative cover story in The New York Times magazine as a precocious teenager drew him to her.  While Miller carefully and with no animosity tells her story, Maynard recalls her love affair with Salinger, warts and all, and attempts to explain her reason for leaving him, auctioning his letters and writing about him.  His subsequent denunciation of her was scathing.

Salinger lived his life on his own terms, in a secluded home in Cornish, N.H.  If you edited his text or filmed it, if you took his photo or wrote about him, you were toast.  While the filmmaker has managed with jaw-dropping flourish to draw attention to a list of previously unpublished works that Salinger had apparently consented be published over a period of several years beginning in 2015, time will tell if this is accurate and if this work enhances his genius or diminishes it.

Director Salerno does not necessarily paint a pretty picture of this man, but the film does  give us much more to work with if we are to understand the roots of Salinger’s brilliant but small body of work, his seclusion and obsessions.  It’s certainly a shock to be reminded that among the quirky fans obsessed with Catcher in the Rye, three were deeply disturbed gunmen, one of whom killed John Lennon and another who almost killed President Reagan.  But we’ll probably never know if J. D. Salinger gave this more than a passing thought.

The “director’s cut” of Salinger debuting tonight on PBS-TV’s American Masters at 9:00 p.m. E.T. (check local listings, for times in your region and for repeat broadcasts) is an engaging, highly recommended attempt to resolve the mystery of author J. D. Salinger, his seclusion at the height of his fame and his oeuvre.  If you are a student of literature, a literary buff, a fan of Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye and the Glass family, or simply a devotee of fine documentary biographies, don’t miss it!  Kudos to the team at American Masters (especially Susan Lacy and Stephen Segaller) for bringing this compelling film to PBS.–Judith Trojan

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Nebraska

Bruce Dern is memorably irascible  as Woody Grant in NEBRASKA. c 2013  Paramount  Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

As irascible Woody Grant, Bruce Dern has his eyes on the prize in NEBRASKA. c 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

If you have aging parents, you’ll probably find yourself in familiar territory in Paramount Vantage’s Nebraska. An Oscar contender for Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Director (Alexander Payne), Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson),  Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael) and Best Picture, Nebraska is by turns an insightful, tender and painfully humorous look at the walls that separate generations when age takes its toll.

Nebraska chronicles the journey of taciturn Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) who’s stubbornly determined to collect a million dollar magazine sweepstakes prize.  The contest is an obvious sham but not to Woody who, barred from using his driver’s license, decides to walk, or as Dern brilliantly plays him, shuffle his way to Lincoln, Nebraska, from his home in Montana to cash in his “prize-winning” letter.  His son David (“Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte in a wonderfully nuanced, Oscar-worthy performance) finally agrees to drive his pig-headed dad to Nebraska. 

Mom Kate (June Squibb) finally takes the wheel in NEBRASKA. c2013 Paramount Pictures.

Mom Kate (June Squibb) finally takes the wheel in NEBRASKA. c 2013 Paramount Pictures.

The men make a pit stop in Woody’s dreary hometown farming community, where they reconnect with Woody’s former pals, his numerous lifeless brothers and their slacker sons, most of whom are looking for payback.  When David’s mom, Kate (June Squibb), and brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join the impromptu Grant family reunion, it becomes apparent they all have more than a few fences to mend.  

While this may sound like a conventional male bonding road picture, with a bucket list tied to one end, it is far from it.  Director and native Nebraskan Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) and screenwriter Bob Nelson (a native of South Dakota) have an obvious affinity for the minutiae of family dynamics and dysfunction in the hinterlands.  They are especially adept at examining the male psyche (as fathers, sons, lovers and friends) without resorting to cheap melodrama and excessive raunchy language. 

The women, although peripheral to the action, are clearly the gatekeepers.  There’s sharp-tongued mom Kate (June Squibb) who hilariously tells it like it is; David’s fed-up girlfriend whose departure triggers David’s self exploration; and Woody’s unexpected first love, who wistfully recalls her beau in a softer light. 

David is the lynchpin here.  His love for his dad is evident during the often comical banter they share over a bottle of beer and during emergency side trips to the E.R. and contretemps with his dad’s old cronies.  Whether he’s tracking down the whereabouts of his ale-addled dad’s false teeth, hovering over his cranky dad in the hospital, or offering a sane voice and steadying hand during visits to his dad’s old haunts, David finally gets his chance to close the gap and forgive the father he’s been dodging for his entire adult life.  For both men, this “prize” is well worth the journey. 

Nebraska takes a refreshing look at how the lack of communication between fathers and sons and their wives and mothers, respectively, can leave us, at the end of life, in a dark place unless we open the conversation before it’s too late.  The film is appropriately shot in black and white, and if that distracts you, you’re not listening.–Judith Trojan

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