Thursday, September 21, 2023

White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix movie, explained

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

There’s a white noise machine in my bedroom. I got it to block out the sound of traffic from the busy avenue outside my window, but years ago we moved our bedroom to the back of the apartment. Now technically redundant, the white noise machine still goes on every night. I downloaded two different apps on my phone to simulate the sound while traveling. That static low hum is absolutely necessary; I can’t sleep without it.

I hate being dependent on a machine for my basic survival, but without it I stare at the ceiling for hours, contemplating my existence, and I think that’s kind of Don DeLillo’s point in White noise. The 1985 novel is one classic of postmodern fiction, long considered “uneditable” for reasons that become clearer when you read it. It is a funny novel that keeps changing shape, making the reader feel the friction between lives dominated by consumerism and consumption and technology on the one hand, and the weight of mortality on the other.

Noah Baumbach’s new film adaptation of the novel is a valiant effort to capture DeLillo’s book, but the result is a film so faithful to the original work it almost doesn’t work. It’s 1984 and Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a middle-aged university professor and head of the Hitler Studies Department he founded. He lives with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) in an old house filled with their children, mostly from previous marriages. His Hitler Studies courses – such as a seminar examining his speeches, for example – are wildly popular, and his colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) wants Jack’s help in setting up a parallel Elvis Studies department. But everything is turned upside down in a strange way when a toxic cloud suddenly forms on the horizon, which the news dubs the “toxic event in the sky.”

People can and will write long equalrated paper and dissertations about white noise, because it’s not really just any story, though on the surface it’s entertaining enough. It’s actually pretty amazing what DeLillo managed to pack into the novel. For example: Hitler studies? What a strange and largely unnoticed choice – but the movie and the novel treat this as if it were a perfectly normal kind of academic department to set up.

Or what about all those lists and litanies of brands that crop up repeatedly? In the film, this translates into many scenes in a brightly colored supermarket with prominently displayed, contemporary products, detergents and milk and certain types of chewing gum. In the novel, we get periodic bursts in the text that become oddly specific little lists. After a musing about how much he loves Babette, Jack suddenly interjects: “The Airport Marriott, the Downtown Travelodge, the Sheraton Inn and Conference Center.”

A family in a station wagon screams.

Airborne Toxic Event: Terrifying!

Or how about the ever-present televisions? They’re in everywhere White noise, which takes place in an era when the Internet had not yet covered the world. “I’ve come to understand that the medium is a primal force in the American home,” Siskind tells Jack. “Enclosed, timeless, self-contained, self-referential. It’s like a myth being born in our living room, as something we know in a dreamlike and preconscious way.” On Friday nights, Jack and his family gather in front of the TV, not to watch movies or sitcoms, but to watch disasters happen on the news – “floods, earthquakes, mudslides, erupting volcanoes.” They are transfixed because “each disaster left us longing for more, for something bigger, grander, more profound.”

A colleague later tells Jack that this is because “we are suffering from brain blurring. We need the occasional catastrophe to break the incessant bombardment of information.” When I read or hear that, in 2022, at a time of constant manufactured outrage, it almost seems too prescient.

Other strange things happen in the novel, some of which also crop up in the movie. Jack can’t quite believe that disaster would befall him because he’s a well-to-do college professor, not the kind of person to befall disaster – that is, a person on TV. The distance that TV has put between him and reality has seeped into his existence.

And yet the terrifying toxic disaster in the sky ends rather abruptly; DeLillo (and Baumbach) give us the comical and disorienting experience of a jump back into reality, Murray and Jack strolling through the grocery store again. As if “reality” – even reality as overwhelming as a toxic cloud in the sky or a pandemic, say – can’t affect the white noise for too long.

This hemorrhage between what’s on TV and what’s real is part of the structure of the novel. Jack regularly muses on disinformation and disinformation (“the family is the cradle of the world’s disinformation,” he says at one point) — something that stems from the human brain’s inability to process whatever comes its way, and our need to understand it with conspiracy theories. Characters suddenly start talking strangely and you realize they’ve fallen into the cadence of a sitcom or a thriller. A group of college professors insult each other for their knowledge of pop culture, which starts to make sense when you consider that pop culture is the lingua franca of modern life, the thing that feels more real than our own lives, the shared experience between us.

For the film adaptation, Baumbach strips away much of the novel’s theoretical underpinnings, though they’re still there if you look for them. Instead, he focuses on the larger existential point that lies at the heart of the novel: that all this white noise we’ve generated for ourselves — an urge to buy things, a fascination with disasters, technologies always buzzing in the background – is a way to distract ourselves from the horrifying realization that we are going to die. Real disasters confront us with that inevitability, but we try to push them away as quickly as possible. That’s why people become obsessed with celebrities (like Elvis) or leaders who falsely promise us the world (like Hitler); by being part of a crowd, by losing ourselves to the artist’s emotional intoxication, we can stop the feeling for a while.

To be honest, Baumbach’s choice is a bit disappointing. Moving a story that goes across screens onto the screen practically begs for some formal invention, a way to let the audience not just watch the story unfold, but feel it, to experience what the characters are experiencing, what on in turn could increase the emotional impact .

But after all it is a very talkative and theoretical novel. And perhaps a faithful adaptation is all we could ask for, though it loses some of the humor and weirdness of the source material as a result.

Adam Driver in a car in White Noise.  It's atmospheric lighting and behind him is a motel sign.

When White noise turns black.
Wilson Webb/Netflix

However, one omission made me particularly sad, because the key to White noise lies in an indelible early scene in the novel. Murray takes Jack to a local tourist attraction he wants to see that Jack never got around to. It’s been called “America’s Most Photographed Barn,” and they’re seeing signs of it being on it long before they get there. When they arrive, “forty cars and a tour bus” are on the property and many people stand around with still cameras to take pictures of the barn.

“No one sees the barn,” Murray tells Jack. “Once you see the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.” He paints it in almost religious terms: “Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We only see what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, the ones who will come in the future. We have agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a sense, like all tourism.”

In the end, he says, “They’re taking pictures of taking pictures.”

Murray’s idea, this somewhat absurd idea of ​​a “most photographed shed” that is remarkable simply because it is remarkable, captures the whole White noise in focus. There’s not much difference between the tourists who travel to photograph a nondescript barn and the way we all take pictures of things that have been photographed a million billion times: the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, whatever . Why are we doing it? Because we’ve seen pictures of it, and want to prove we were there too. “There”, not just in Paris or New York or San Francisco, but in the world. We want to break through our mediated reality for a moment and put down a marker. A photograph is a way of claiming reality, of framing existence: we were here. We lived. We mattered.

And one day we won’t be here anymore, but no one wants to think about that now.

At the end of the novel and of the film, Jack is back in line at the supermarket, watching people go about their business, looking through the rich array of consumer products. “Everything we need that isn’t food or love is right here in the tabloids,” he concludes. “The stories of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the cures for obesity. The Cults of the Celebrities and the Dead.”

White noise is about the barriers between us and reality that we have built to distract ourselves from our own mortality. But like the white noise machine, I need to sleep, even though there is nothing left to drown out, we have become so dependent on our cultural white noise that the idea of ​​living without it is almost unbearable. Call it the human condition or whatever you want: it’s how we deal with the ways we all stare at the ceiling, contemplating existence, hoping we’ve meant something in the end.

White noise streams on Netflix.

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