How often do you come across a film as profoundly, thoroughly and costlyly misconceived as Noah Baumbach’s White noise? More than before thanks to Netflix. But even throwing up last year Don’t look up didn’t make me wonder: Is irony dead? What about literacy? I think we should be thankful for that. Because just about everything else here is a catastrophe.
Baumbach’s adaptation largely follows the outline of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel of the same name. Adam Driver stars as Jack Gladney, a Midwestern College-on-the-Hill professor and inventor of what he calls “Hitler studies.” Jack is currently married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), a nominal stay-at-home mom to the several children from their previous marriages. Over the course of an academic year, Jack and Babette, separately and together, will confront the great fear of death that burns at the center of their existence in a small town and their marriage and the family they have built together. have tinkered with, threatens to put them on the slope.
This probably sounds like the setup of a number of bland mid-century novels about Central American boredom, many of which testify to selfish WASP libido written by rightly forgotten middlebrow New Englanders. But White noise deserves his National Book Award-supported canonization. DeLillo constantly invents new forms of American absurdity and then narrates them with an extremely straight face. Academics speak seriously of pissing in sinks. An elderly couple takes shelter for days in an abandoned cookie kiosk in the local mall. A boy named Orest Mercator devotes his life to handling snakes in a cage and fails within minutes. It’s bizarre, chilling, and funny as hell.
DeLillo delivers this so precisely, and with a certain poetic clinicism, that we begin to experience reality as his characters do: abstractly. His characters are depicted as figures in a Grant Wood painting, geometrically accurate but in a purely representational sense. ideas instead of people. He gives us the experience and the commentary at the same time. “This is Babette’s point,” Jack declares about his wife. “A lover of daylight and dense living, the diverse teeming air of families.” He believes it, and so does she. This is the point of White noise.
Baumbach adapts many of these conversations directly, often transplanting the dialogue with minimal deviation. But DeLillo’s postmodern prose clatters horribly from Baumbach’s disastrous stylistic decisions. He shoots White noise with the gauzy glow of an Amblin movie, or rather our contemporary idea of what 1980s family meals should look like, warmly lit and gaudyly costumed. There is some promise in this, theoretically: imagine one of Spielberg’s dramas being invaded by our postmodern insanity.
But Baumbach commits to this approach in haunting quotes; we are watching an ’80s movie’, not a movie that represents the eighties. His sets are wafer-thin, full of brightly colored cereal boxes and awash in pastels. He drapes his characters in the kind of gaudy tracksuits that we, today’s audiences, associate with the decade, rather than the kind of clothes a professor and his wife might have been wearing. And worst of all, his actors deliver their absurd dialogues with a faint grin, as if to say: is not consumerism wild? Only Don Cheadle and Andre Benjamin make their jokes sing, as they play the least self-aware people on the planet (academics).
Perhaps Baumbach does this on purpose. After all, doesn’t this sound like a tongue-in-cheek 80s movie about a tongue-in-cheek 80s America? But with no energy or real perspective on the material, his poor costumes and bright colors reduce it to the level of kitsch, and his own style to an easy pastiche. You can feel his effort to conform DeLillo’s novel to the limited cinematic language he has constructed around it, and he often opts for the cliché. If you pick up the book today, it remains exciting, hilarious, profound. Baumbach’s film already seems flimsy and dated, like a prefabricated house brought to market too late.
Take the Airborne Toxic Event. A 60-page highlight in the middle of DeLillo’s novel, the event rips the Gladneys from their rural idyll and throws them onto the road, ignoring at first and finally struggling to outrun the potentially cancerous cloud created by a spill of toxic waste. In the novel, the event begins at the local train station, beginning as a small accidental spill before rippling up and up in an almost biblical catastrophe. But the Gladneys only watch it from a distance, getting all their information from the radio and from Jack’s son Heinrich, who watches it through binoculars from his nest in the attic. What the thing is, whether it’s dangerous, how to react; the novel answers these questions with further conjecture, so that when they finally return to their daily lives, the truth of their mass traumatic experience remains essentially theoretical, just more information provided by experts and accepted in the absence of any ability to understand it themselves . You must do as you are told, because who are you to know better?
Baumbach stages the spill as a major train wreck, with a drunk driver ramming his tractor-trailer into train cars with a highly dangerous chemical as he reaches for his bottle. There is no greater threat to the accident, no sense of industrial laziness or government incompetence. It’s goofy, a debased Spielberg impression that misunderstands the purpose of the event in the story. This only gets worse as the section progresses, filled with scenes of the audience Baumbach sloppily choreographs, blurry images crashing into one another without an ounce of chaos or horror, or even humor. This should be the centerpiece of the movie, the illustration of its themes blown up to apocalyptic scale. Instead, as with so many of his films, Baumbach places almost no dramatic or emotional emphasis on it. It’s just another thing that happens, in a long line of things that happen.
To his credit, Baumbach left out some of the novel’s most indelible moments. He seems to understand that much of the novel’s power lies precisely in its presence as a text, in which description is more important than representation. There is no most photographed barn in America, no “Toyota Celica.” These moments hint at an almost metaphysical world of signs and symbols, reading transcendence in the capitalist esperanto of corporate rebrandings and radio talk shows. They take seriously the invasion of everyday life by self-help and cable news and the random snippets of junk language that will float through the story: “Mastercard, Visa, American Express.” The effect is terrifying, saddening on an existential level. Perhaps Baumbach understood that all he could do was humiliate them, that he put them in their mouths That actors in it this one wigs would be an insult of sorts.
Unfortunately, this didn’t stop him from adapting the book or making a series of horrendous revisions to the story itself. At one point, Babette tearfully confesses that she slept with a medical scientist in exchange for an experimental pill that will supposedly cure the fear of death. Baumbach can’t help but be a divorce master, but he can’t help but stage this as a tearful confession, an emotional winnowing that reduces their relationship to a cliché. Suddenly this is a marriage story, and one that must end with the destruction or the reconsolidation of the family.
Getting worse. When Jack goes looking for the scientist, he finds a man gobbling his own pills and spewing piles of randomized junk language: news clips, TV phrases, pull quotes from magazines. It has become legible but useless, like a cistern holding cultural mush. In the novel, Jack’s clinical narration is repeatedly interrupted by the man’s exclamations, which DeLillo integrates into a seamless piece, an unbroken monologue of American incomprehension. It’s very funny and hauntingly sad and deeply unresolved.
And then, in one of the most daunting artistic decisions I can remember, Baumbach has first Jack and then Babette comment to the public on the man’s verbal collage. It’s the choice of a director who has very little faith in – and an amazing degree of disregard for – his viewers. We can no longer rely on locating the absurd, parsing irony, interpreting the meaning for ourselves.
Baumbach has given us a thin, synthetic film, full of false prestige. This is the idea of a movie, the movie as a junk concept. If it has any value, it will be as an inadvertent illustration of the very same cultural pollution as that White noise first diagnosed three and a half decades ago. It’s little more than ambient noise, empty, easily scattered.
Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.