The main topic of conversation with regard to White Noise – if there’s any conversation at all, as the noise has mostly been crickets, if that – is its absurd price tag. Just another dubiously overinflated budget for a Netflix picture, of course (I still can’t get over The Irishman costing as much as $250m and the de-aging being that atrocious). This kind of thing simply isn’t in Noah Baumbach’s frame of reference; the $100m spent is four times anything he’s sniffed at previously. There are sequences here – notably during the mid-section – that clearly cost quite a bit, but White Noise was reportedly a troubled production besides this, with an out-of-control, despotic director, a DP discarded and replaced, and a very unhappy crew. The result is a shaggy-dog, potential future cult favourite, surprisingly disciplined in terms of specific sequences, but sprawling and unfocussed as a whole.
That may be exactly the point, but it takes someone with more rambunctious, untamed energy to infuse such wild intent with cohesive energy. I can’t pass judgement on Baumbach’s faithfulness to the source material, Don DeLillo’s “unfilmable” 1985 novel, but I’ve seen it suggested he unspools things much too broadly. Which would probably make my thought that I could see this produced during the ’80s – perhaps directed by John Landis and starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo – probably the exact opposite of anything fans of the book would want.
As someone who hasn’t read his DeLillo, there’s a prevailing air of all-encompassing satire, but with an added sense of “But what’s it in aid of, really?” Do you need to pull all the points together? Perhaps not in a novel, but a movie (usually) demands a more tangible structure, unless the filmmaker is something above and beyond. Catch-22, an admirable attempt as it intermittently is, couldn’t pull it off, and nothing in Baumbach’s oeuvre suggests he could either. To an extent, White Noise is a relationship dramedy like all his others, one with a familiar foot in the meta-pond (Cinema Studies), but it’s reach is much more extensive than anything else he has tackled (reportedly, it was Brian De Palma’s suggestion, when Baumbach interviewed him for the 2015 doc on the director, that he should try an adaptation to stretch himself).
Per Wiki, the novel takes in an unwieldy smorgasbord of “rampant consumerism, media saturation, novelty academic intellectualism, underground conspiracies, the disintegration and reintegration of the family, human-made disasters, and the potentially regenerative nature of violence”. Indeed, it’s the kind of thing, biting off more than one can chew, that invites a movie debacle (see Southland Tales, Inherent Vice). If you have a clear through line, the various disparate elements can hang onto it for sheer life. Otherwise, you’re left with a rambling, novelistic approach, one emphasised here by the adoption of DeLillo’s three-part structure (Waves and Radiation; The Airborne Toxic Event; Dylarama). Baumbach’s film is usually diverting, but it never feels organised. The first part suffers most in this regard, a hotchpotch of family, career and theme that seems to pick events (from the novel) off the rack without much attention to whether they serve the piece as a whole or lend it form.
Jack Gladney: I teach “Advanced Nazism”.
Waves and Radiation introduces us to Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his Dylar-addicted wife Babette (Greta Gerwig, rocking a Nancy Travis perm) and their brood of four from prior and current marriages (in the book, they’re all from his, which includes his exs, unseen here: one works for the CIA, another an ashram. Son Heinrich (Sam Nivola) also plays correspondence chess with a mass murderer). Jack is a college professor renowned for his Hitler Studies Programme (“Hitler’s now Gladney’s Hitler”) who agrees to help fellow Professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle; the character is Jewish in the novel) get a foot in the door to establish an “Elvis Presley” studies powerbase in the faculty.
Murray is first seen extolling the virtues of cinematic car crashes (“What kind of optimism is this?”), and if his confident discourse yields some choice nuggets (“Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation”), the prevailing view is of the superficiality of academia (“We’re all brilliant. Isn’t that the understanding around here?” asks Jodie Turner-Smith’s Winnie Richards). The professors’ lunchtime conversation is as banal and base as any other profession’s. The Hitler Studies idea probably seemed quite daring back then, in a Mel Brooks kind of way, but the kind of shallowness of academia is no longer satirical but rather a given (Jack requires his students take a year of German but cannot speak it himself). The centrepiece of this section is Jack and Murray co-presenting a lecture juxtaposing the lives of Adolf and Elvis that doesn’t really work (it seems too obvious as soon as it starts, as does Jack’s crescendo, to a spellbound audience, as if holding forth at a rally).
But there’s also, right from the start, an emphasis on death, which is so obvious as to rather stumble as a unifying theme. The celebration of car crashes and Jack’s assertion re the attempt to assassinate Hitler that “all plots move deathward, which is the nature of plots”; self-reflexively, so will the plot of the movie/novel. Thrown into the melee of ’80s hang-ups are pill dependency and side effects, the dangers of additives, and addiction to and conditioning by TV (“Plane crash footage!” shouts one of the kids; they all gather round the box, rapt). More strikingly, Baumbach also stages an effective nightmare sequence, suggesting he’d have been a better choice for the Halloween retcon than David Gordon Green.
Jack Gladney: There’s always an air mass coming from Canada.
Despite the death theme, there’s a sense of Baumbach struggling to coalesce any kind of direction or purpose. Part 2 pulls together an actual narrative, an offbeat, science-fiction-tinged one that manages to assemble a National Lampoon’s Vacation vibe by way of an Alex Cox movie. The idiot adults vs bright kids aspect is emphasised here, with Jack’s parental reassurance regarding the cloud of chemical waste tipping into panic as it becomes clear – or rather, with the ever-changing and often conflicting instructions of media and authorities, variably clear – that those we put our faith in are as clueless as everyone else.
Denise Gladney: Why are they shopping for furniture during the airborne event?
There’s some very amusing material in The Airborne Toxic Event, such as Jack intellectualising the potential predicament by explaining how (unfortunately) society is set up such that the poor and uneducated suffer natural disasters, immediately prior to their affluently succumbing to one. “She’s showing outdated symptoms” advises Heinrich when Denise (Raffey Cassidy) rushes out of the room to vomit (they’re now supposed to comprise heart palpitations and déjà vu. If you have coof déjà vu here, that’s entirely understandable). Later, Steffie (May Nivola) is looking attentively at the occupants of other cars on the freeway because “I want to know how scared I should be”. Jack’s brains only come in handy when he opts to escape a panicking evac stop by pursuing a truck with “Gun control is mind control” on the bumper; he follows them because they obviously know how to survive. Unfortunately, Jack is much less savvy. When he fords a creek, it takes his encyclopaedic son to offer calm instructions on how to reach dry land again.
Simuvac Technician: They did happen before. In our minds. As visions of the future.
Baumbach also has fun with Jack – potentially toxically exposed through being rained on – trying to parse why a SIMUVAC rep is at the scene of an actual disaster: “Are you saying you saw the opportunity to use the real evacuation in order to rehearse the simulation?” Again, if this toxic event sounds like coof commentary (production of White Noise began in the middle of 2021), it could be the triumvirate of prescient DeLillo, predictive programming, and White Hat-influenced revelation of Black Hat method. Per the novel, this could be read through the lens of Baudrillard (see The Matrix), of “a world that seems determined by simulation” (the toxic event, a drug that confuses suggestion with action, media influence generally). The novel characterises this in terms of Murray’s “aura”; the representation of the thing supplants the original of the thing itself, which can no longer be perceived for what it is (be that a barn or a car crash).
We are told the government is putting microorganisms in the toxic cloud (shades of chemtrailing and nanotech), leading to Babette worrying “The greater the scientific advance, the more scared I get”. Which makes perfect sense, as advance is both the cause (toxic spill) and “solution”.
This section, with its cues of cars, special effects clouds, off-road chases, and crash scenes homaging Godard’s Weekend, is presumably where much of White Noise’s budget went. Well, the budget that can be accounted for. And it’s serviceably delivered by Baumbach. If there’s a problem, it’s that he’s controlled with his technical deftness, rather than yielding to any whim to let loose and energise the picture; this part is structurally composed, but it lacks kineticism, for all its emphasis on movement.
Murray: But think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person.
Part 3 focuses in on the main theme; we discover that Babette’s Dylar addiction – for which she has prostituted herself – is brought on by an inextinguishable fear of death. Baumbach (and DeLillo) aren’t exactly subtle in conjugating this. Murray has given Jack a gun in Part 2, for Chekovian purposes, and Jack, seized by jealousy and obsession when Babette confesses her indiscretions, goes to confront the purveyor of the experimental drug (“Dylar is almost as ingenious as the microorganisms that ate the billowing cloud”; “He found a Dylar receptor in the human brain”).
Mr Gray: I eat this stuff like candy.
I have to admit, this rather generic revenge scenario – I don’t know if it comes from the novel, but Babette’s “Men are killers” rationale for showing up at the scene of the intended crime fits very neatly with currently fashionable “progressive” attitudes – feels rather as if it’s been stapled onto the framework for late-stage dramatic effect. Nothing Jack has shown hitherto suggests such a turn of mind (perhaps the argument would be, “Isn’t it always the way?”), and if Baumbach – again – shows himself entirely capable of turning his hand to the (de Palma-esque) thriller genre trappings, that makes it no less ungainly. Baumbach adds Babette to the novel’s scene of the crime, which makes for… a cheerfully ambivalent complicity and reconciliation element. However, it also sets things up for the kind of patness that often would be the extended hand of a spiritual comfort blanket but here is more Baumbachian.
Jack Gladney: You’re a nun! Act like one!
Jack and Babette share a subsequent scene, in which they drop “Mr Gray” (Lars Eidinger) off at a hospital run by nuns; the couple are also receiving treatment (both having been shot due to Jack’s lucky ineptitude). There, DeLillo’s rather unfinessed worldview gets a showing. If you hadn’t already realised that materialism was everything, with the fears of the (scientifically) manufactured world proving daunting, the rigours of intellectualism no match for it, and death, as a response, becoming only more intimidating, Sister Hermann Marie (Barbara Sukowa) informs them she doesn’t believe in God, or heaven. It’s all for show: “If we didn’t believe these things, the world collapses”. Cue Baumbach’s finessing of the only humanist salvation left to the average man (and woman): “So maybe you should try to believe in each other” (their having kids only staves off the mortal coil for so long, before rearing once more with a vengeance).
So, per DeLillo, religion is of no value beyond the essential construct. Which is, in itself, fair comment, but his having nothing to fill the void also makes White Noise’s satire on empty, superficial lives rather glib and faintly irrelevant. It’s as if it’s readily able to identify everything but the solution, and by implication, therefore, the core issue. DeLillo, a fallen Catholic, has been characterised as investing an air of “spiritual ambivalence” into his work at this time, an inclination toward the sacred without the architecture up top to fulfil such a yearning. Baumbach, in contrast, replied outright to the negative when asked if he believed in God. Which may be why the supermarket dance sequence, to LCD Soundsystem’s New Body Rhumba, over the end credits is less a paean to the “hypnotic and spiritual nature of the supermarket” than a Pulp video on a maxi-budget. Baumbach isn’t buying into that side of DeLillo.
In general, one should probably concentrate on criticising what a movie is doing, or attempting to do, rather than highlighting what one thinks it should be doing, even if it has no intention of going that way. But with the spiritual side of the equation conspicuously unaddressed by White Noise, the picture as a whole feel scattered and unresolved. The “You have each other” resolution is on the perfunctory side; it’s a nice affirmation, if you like, of the family unit, but it’s nevertheless presenting that as the “answer”, for want of something better. Baumbach’s adaptation of DeLillo throws in everything but the kitchen sink. I suspect he should have included that too.
Addendum 13/02/23: Hmmm… A train derailment and toxic spill in East Palestine, Ohio, you say?