' ' Cinema Romantico: White Noise

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

White Noise

To try and describe Don DeLillo’s acclaimed 1985 novel “White Noise” in terms of plot is folly. It’s not a book about plot or even character but a book about a feeling, namely a feeling of death, or more specifically the fear of death. That fear metaphorically takes the form of a noxious cloud deemed an airborne toxic event that hovers over Jack and Babette Gladney and their family of four. Physically Jack and Babette try to ward off the fear of death through an experimental drug and emotionally the whole family seeks to stem the fear of death with constant trips to the supermarket to buy shit they don’t need (to quote Chuck Palahniuk’s book that came 11 years later). And as much as “White Noise” is about this fear it is also about how DeLillo describes this fear, with flat, repetitive, sometimes off-putting prose infused with a low-key menace that you don’t respond to, not exactly, more like have seep into your bones while you’re reading. And so, it only makes sense that Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of “White Noise” for the silver screen, nay, Netflix is all about a feeling too, if a different one, with Baumbach locating the absurdity and irony embedded within DeLillo’s text and bringing it up in the mix, creating something akin to screwball horror. True, in straining to include as much of DeLillo’s material as he can, Baumbach’s version can sometimes feel messy, the narrative from time to time fitful rather than flowing. But like a suicide concocted from a vintage 1980s soda fountain, it all comes together in its own idiosyncratic way.

“White Noise” opens up with Jack’s colleague at the fictional College-on-the-Hill Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) lecturing on the proclivity of car crashes in American cinema as a kind of spiritual balm, essentially mounting an academic case for cinema as a distraction, and which Baumbach underlines by opening “White Noise” with a click and whir of a camera projector. Behold, Baumbach is saying, my movie is a distraction, my own version of a Hollywood spectacle, a satiric Hollywood spectacle. And yet, Baumbach has invested his satire with a surprising amount of sincerity, grounded in the warmth of Jack and Babette, two people who deliberately remain remote on the page but come alive on the screen via Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, respectively, playing two loving parents trying to keep their heads above water. Though Baumbach’s exact transcriptions of DeLillo’s dialogue sometimes makes it seem as if you are watching a heavily accented movie, struggling to comprehend it even if you know the words, with some passages so exactingly verbose they just don’t work at all, he just as often evinces delightful ping-ponging conversations, especially on the domestic front, where the unrelenting inquiries of the Gladney children put into comical perspective the exhausting, exhaustive nature of parenting and how kids eventually become living illustrations of the world passing their parents by. The introductory scenes set on the fictional college campus where Jack works can feel disjointed — within themselves and within the context of the whole movie — but they set up a useful contrast of Jack in his black gown and dark sunglasses as a professorial rock star while at home he is reduced to a semi-hapless goggle-eyed spectator in his own life. That idea takes flight when the airborne toxic event occurs, and the family takes flight with thousands of others down clogged highways.

Never known as a visual stylist, Baumbach ups the ante here, less with the familiar blockbuster scenes, however, than the boisterous, almost garish, coloring of his cinematography and costuming, as if we are watching the apocalypse through a Kodak Polaroid. A key scene in which Jack is inadvertently exposed to the possibly poisonous cloud happens at an empty gas station where he is filling their station-wagon tank, one in which DeLillo delights in the ultimate form of American consumption triggering his personal doomsday clock and which Baumbach honors by rendering as a horror movie scene. Later, when fleeing by back roads, following survivalists who might know what they are doing, the kids still peppering their parents with typically irrelevant questions, their vehicle even briefly winding up floating in a river, “White Noise” hysterically illustrates the idea of a family vacation as disaster with disaster itself, Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” meets Godard’s “Weekend” meets Ramis’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” the latter epitomized in their station-wagon flying up and over an embankment, their faces frozen in panic. If DeLillo’s novel embodied the dread of the Cold War at its height, Baumbach has merged that dread with the desperation of Clark Griswold, and when Babette reads from a supermarket tabloid at an airborne toxic even shelter to a small group gathered around her, I thought of Clark reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

The denouement of “White Noise,” in which Babette’s addiction to death-defying pills comes to a dramatic, surreal head, may as well be a supermarket tabloid story: Nuns Save Gun-Wielding Pill Fiends. Here Baumbach diverges from the book by including Babette in Jack’s misbegotten quest to find the pill-peddler in the name of vengeance, transforming it into a phantasmagorical Golden Age slapstick comedy that finally concludes back around the kitchen table with the beginning of a grocery list, the modern world’s Rosetta Stone, commencing one more trip to the supermarket, the unbending cycle of the consumer age, which gives way to a dance sequence bleeding into and continuing under the closing credits. Watching this, I thought of that age-old phrase that comes in various versions, how in trying to talk about love, one may as well be dancing about architecture, and how even if it may be a struggle to talk about death, maybe all you really need to do is dance about it. 


Derek Armstrong said...

Whenever I come here (sadly infrequently) I am reminded again how differently you encapsulate a movie than I do, and how much I wish I could encapsulate a movie like you do. Great read. Going to be posting a top ten?

Nick Prigge said...

Thaks for the lovely comment, Derek! And thanks for asking. Hoping to post one. I feel more up to it this year than last, despite my general brain fog, but I'm not sure when. Maybe actual Oscar week would be a good time to do it.