White Noise (2022)
Written & Directed by Noah Baumbach
Yeah, so American cinema is a corpse. To end my year on this movie is a sign that I need to slowly withdraw my time & energy from the majority of mainstream films coming out of the United States. Noah Baumbach was never one of my favorite directors, but I have enjoyed some of his recent work, especially his films on Netflix (The Meyerowitz Stories, Marriage Story). And I didn’t balk at the idea of him writing & directing an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, a book I’ve read twice and enjoy quite a bit. Baumbach seemed an excellent fit to bring a very unfilmable novel to the big screen. Then the first trailer dropped, and I started to question the tone. And then I watched the movie.
Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a professor of Hitler Studies at the Midwestern College on the Hill. He feels tremendous inadequacy over the fact that he cannot speak German and secretly takes lessons to learn it. Jack is married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), his fourth wife, and they live with her daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) and two of his kids, Heinrich & Steffie. Wilder is the product of Jack & Babette’s union. Denise discovers that her mother is sneaking prescription meds and can’t figure out what they are. She enlists the help of Jack, preoccupied with his fears of death stalking him. Jack is also working alongside new addition to the faculty Murray Siskind who wants to carve his niche in Elvis Studies. Then a disaster occurs when a train is derailed, unleashing an airborne toxic event into the skies and bringing Jack closer to death than he has ever been.
There isn’t any way to analyze this film without discussing the book. White Noise, the novel, exists so perfectly as a piece of literature that it was always hard to imagine a movie. It’s like trying to conceive a good enough movie adaptation of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, which is pretty near impossible to translate. So what does Baumbach manage to do to the original work to transpose it into this new medium? It feels like he injects a lot of Steven Spielberg-ian sensibilities, which will be a mixed bag for viewers.
The story at the heart of White Noise is not that sort of narrative at all. Instead, DeLillo is disgusted with much of contemporary American consumption culture and conveys this in the book through a cacophony of thoughts & dialogue that are people trying to fill space with gibberish because the silence is death for them. Baumbach does attempt that, using Spielberg’s overlapping dialogue from a movie like E.T. as a template. But that brings all the shallowness the elder director presents in his work. DeLillo is not searching for the emotional catharsis of a Spielberg picture, yet Baumbach brings us there.
I was worried, and my worry was proven correct that Baumbach would make a much bigger deal out of the airborne toxic event sequence. This is a decent section in the book, but the story is not dominated by it. Jack’s thoughts and responses to the event and subsequent evacuation are typically subdued; after all, this is a middle-aged American white guy in total denial that he will die, terrified of the idea. This sequence in the movie starts promising, with Jack trying to diminish his children’s concerns about what is happening.
However, when the camp is evacuated, things go off the rails, and we are brought into an extended car chase sequence. It does not work for me, and the subsequent scene in Iron City feels utterly disjointed from the purpose of this story. Yes, it is more filmic, but it highlights my worries about adapting the novel. To make it work in the medium of not just cinema but as a Netflix original movie, so many edges have to be shorn off, and so many shallow conceits of the medium as it exists in contemporary American culture have to be shoehorned in that we get a movie that fails to capture the essence of what DeLillo was desperate to convey to his readers.
At times, White Noise feels like a parody of the idea of making a movie of this book, which is what I liked. Other times it is presented as a “good compromise” with the source material, a means to make the characters & story more “palatable” to the expected audience. I can’t imagine your average Netflix viewer knowing what to make of this tonally confused movie, much less like it. I also don’t think many fans of the novel will appreciate the film as much. So, White Noise, the movie becomes yet another piece of cultural clutter that DeLillo was espousing his disdain for.
I don’t think White Noise the movie was a total disaster. The performances from Driver & Gerwig are very good. I think they both manage to convey the sense of anxiety present in those early years of Reagan’s America. Some sequences capture the tone of DeLillo’s book, but not many. For the majority of the two-hour-plus runtime, it felt very awkward. Most of the time, the style of this movie just does not come close to capturing the book. I still don’t quite understand why making this into a movie seemed imperative for the parties involved when plenty of other books are more suited for cinema. I think the novel is a fantastic piece of literature, and that’s what it is. It’s a story that is told best in that medium.