The Anxious Influences of Netflix’s “White Noise”

The Anxious Influences of Netflix’s “White Noise”

Collective Disaster

Noah Baumbach’s thorny adaptation of White Noise.


After seeing White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s acclaimed 1985 novel, at the New York Film Festival, I discussed the movie with a couple of friends as we walked back to the subway. They had mixed to negative reactions, for a bevy of reasons, but they shared one thing: They felt that the film’s thematic concerns—consumerism as an American religion, the media’s power to shape human behavior, the collapse of high and low culture—were fundamentally dated and quaint. The story of college professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their brood of children and stepchildren confronting an “airborne toxic event”—a noxious cloud from a chemical spill that threatens the fictional town of Blacksmith—comports broadly with the tropes of a disaster film, but the fixation on contemporary pop culture can feel tired when depicted on-screen. We live in the age of watered-down postmodernism; contemporary audiences are trained to closely analyze cultural flotsam, inured to metatextuality and pastiche in forms as varied as Quentin Tarantino films and single-camera sitcoms.

For me, DeLillo’s novel has always felt eerily contemporary despite being undoubtedly of its time. Though the linearity of broadcast television no longer dominates American culture, the bombardment of advertising and brand awareness remains at an all-time high thanks to the Internet. Semiotic analysis is now the default mode of consuming entertainment; the cultural-think-piece industry more or less reflects how Gladney and his academic colleagues speak to one another. If the supermarket as America’s consumerist mecca sounds trite these days, the modern equivalent lives online via Amazon. Cable news still conditions our experiences and responses to external events, while social media also molds our sense of personal authenticity. One need only take a gander at a Twitter feed to immediately clock the concept of speech as noise—a bedrock of half-truths, bad-faith readings, and distorted evidence. The invisible, disquieting network of “psychic data” that courses through the novel has only expanded as technology has proliferated. (DeLillo would have had a field day with QR-code menus if they had been around back then.) White Noise’s citations might have aged, but DeLillo’s societal diagnoses remain firmly up-to-date.

DeLillo’s ability to capture the pervasive sense of dread that boils beneath the surface of daily life continues to resonate, too. The novel’s central tension lies between humanity’s bone-deep fear of death and its drive to mine life for meaning, especially in the face of creeping emptiness and technological mediation. Finding purpose in places and things, including the most trivial refuse, can defer a recognition of mortality. In his film, Baumbach takes a more direct route to relevancy by analogizing the airborne toxic event and its paranoid aftermath to Covid. The anxiety around mortality in DeLillo’s novel is evergreen, but it takes on a whole new context in the long-tail reverberations of a pandemic.

Baumbach could have rendered that parallel in an annoyingly obvious, on-the-nose fashion, but instead he sticks to DeLillo’s text, and so the comparison carries some added power. At a summer camp turned quarantine facility for those escaping the lethal cloud, Baumbach shows various strangers spouting different theories and predictions about the event, which feels eerily like the period in 2020 when everyone became an amateur epidemiologist. Earlier, when the Gladney children try to raise the alarm about the need to evacuate their home, both Jack and Babette calmly try to avoid panic. Here, Baumbach illustrates a key tenet in DeLillo’s novel that’s applicable to our current situation: The American character boasts a unique ability to blot out disturbances, to assume that tragedy happens only to other people, to believe that “we” can’t be implicated in collective disasters. As much as that poignancy helps affirm DeLillo’s continued relevance, Baumbach’s adaptation also strains against the irresolvable uncertainty surging through the novel, one that clashes with any semblance of hope.

Long considered an “unfilmable novel,” White Noise has seen its rights change hands many times in the past 20 years. The rights to the film were passed from HBO to James L. Brooks’s production company Gracie Films to Barry Sonnenfeld, who had optioned the novel under multiple production companies and was attached to direct as late as 2004. Michael Almereyda was set to direct an adaptation in the 2010s before Baumbach finally entered the picture. Baumbach’s previous films have tended toward small-scale naturalism—dialogue-driven and with a distinctly literary bent. His first-ever adaptation takes a literal approach; though there are a handful of elisions, it strives to bring the book’s narrative faithfully to life. Most of the film features scenes ripped from the novel, with only one major deviation occurring at the very end.

Baumbach also leans heavily on DeLillo’s stylized dialogue, which makes up most of the book. In what is easily the most divisive element of the film, Baumbach chooses to replicate DeLillo’s snappy rhythms, with people speaking in rapid-fire, fully formed sentences that sound like a mix of punch lines, comebacks, and witticisms. Whenever there are multiple characters on-screen, they tend to step on each other’s lines. Sometimes you hear an individual speak, and other times you hear the collective sound everyone makes. Everyone speaks in a similar tone of voice modeled after DeLillo’s dialogue. Though this occasionally frustrates, Baumbach achieves a thematically appropriate and wholly unnatural musicality of speech—a white noise of his own.

Like the novel, the film has three distinct sections. The first, “Waves and Radiation,” establishes the Gladneys and their family dynamics, Jack’s career as the preeminent figure in “Hitler studies” at the College-on-the-Hill, and the edging sense of disquiet on the margins of their otherwise conventional existence. “The Airborne Toxic Event,” the most cinematic chapter, chronicles the Gladneys’ attempt to escape the oncoming disaster, leading them to flee to multiple quarantine camps. The final section, “Dylarama,” reveals Babette’s secret addiction to Dylar, an experimental drug that suppresses the fear of death, and the burrowing jealousy in Jack’s heart that catalyzes a violent act. The second and third sections deliberately break from the tone of the first in accordance with one of the novel’s key philosophical assertions: “All plots tend to move deathwards.”

White Noise features Baumbach in a consciously atypical mode as director, paying homage to some classic American movies from the late 1970s and early ’80s, close to the period of his own film. The family scenes in the first section broadly recall the ones from Steven Spielberg’s E.T., with their emphasis on a colorful, suburban, middle-class aesthetic. The “Airborne Toxic Event” section plays like an extended riff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a lengthy highway traffic jam sequence capturing that film’s collective terror and wonder of the sky. Baumbach channels the work of John Carpenter during a scene in which Jack has a nightmare about an intruder in his own bed. The final section smacks of Brian De Palma’s early-’80s neo-noirs like Blow Out and Body Double.

Yet while White Noise often feels intended in part as a tribute to films from the director’s childhood, its aesthetic impression still excites, demonstrating Baumbach’s ability to play in a markedly different, much larger sandbox than his smaller-scale films would suggest. Unfortunately, however, the film exists on a specific, alienating wavelength that almost seems intended to please no one, as can be gleaned from the politely mixed notices from the critics so far. It’s difficult to imagine anyone unfamiliar with the novel remotely enjoying the film, with its artificial dialogue and affected performances. At the same time, Baumbach’s overly prosaic, literal-minded approach might also alienate fans of the novel.

While many of the performers successfully key into the rhythm of DeLillo’s text—especially the young actors playing the Gladney children—Driver and Gerwig palpably struggle with the dialogue, alternating between delivering their lines with robotic disaffection and imbuing them with false passion in an effort to render them more natural. Certain scenes fall flat entirely, particularly an extended car chase sequence invented for the film that lands the Gladneys’ vehicle in a river and concludes with the family screaming in unison as they’re launched into the air. It’s as if Baumbach had decided to conduct a misguided comedic experiment, since these swerves into unfamiliar slapstick territory don’t really suit his more sober sensibility. Much of Baumbach’s movie will seem stilted and cacophonous to anyone uninterested in watching a filmmaker try to bring an iconic American text to life.

Still, it hard to not admire the effort, which places him far outside his comfort zone. The actors’ mannered performances clash compellingly with the film’s throwback style, which doesn’t scan as nostalgic but rather as a genuine attempt on Baumbach’s part to revitalize a style absent from commercial cinema. (Having seen White Noise projected on film, I think it’s a shame that the vast majority of its viewers won’t have the chance to see it presented properly.) It’s an honest delight to watch a director taking an ambitious swing like this with a big Netflix-approved budget, reaching for cinematic spectacle while maintaining fidelity to the novel. In a recent New York Times profile, Baumbach noted that his novelist father, Jonathan, a contemporary of DeLillo’s, adored White Noise upon its initial publication and that it was one of the few books the two could bond over. Considering that White Noise concerns itself so much with the notion of dying, and how much death lives in and among us but is rarely spoken about openly, it’s notable that this is the first film Baumbach has directed since his father’s death in 2019.

For such a faithful adaptation, it’s telling to see which sections of the novel Baumbach chose not to include. He eschews “the most photographed barn in America,” one of the novel’s most famous passages, in which Jack and his colleague Murray visit the eponymous tourist attraction, which can only be perceived by signs or photographic representations. (“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one.”) Baumbach also chose not to film the novel’s various sunsets, a chilling symbol that encompasses feelings of awe and dread since it’s implied that the airborne toxic event has rendered them more beautiful in its aftermath.

These are minor exclusions in the grand scheme of things, but Baumbach’s most drastic departure occurs at the end, when he reframes Jack’s dark night of the soul—his vengeance against the man who conned his wife into believing that drugs were the answer to her prayers—as an act of marital reconciliation. Baumbach affirms Jack and Babette’s relationship, bringing them closer together after the horrors of the chemical disaster and a scene of potentially fatal violence. It’s a conscious attempt to infuse the film with a sense of positivity, leaning too heavily on a line that occurs within the novel’s “Airborne Toxic Event” section: “Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we keep inventing hope.”

Except that line is really a double-edged sword. DeLillo wraps his earnestness in irony, his sharp criticisms in sympathy, his eagerness to experience daily life’s moments of transcendence in the fear that it’s all but impossible to be fully present. These contradictions are part of the reason White Noise’s final chapter haunts and enthralls. In the last few pages, the youngest Gladney child—Wilder, a symbol of mute innocence—rides his tricycle across the highway and miraculously survives, though DeLillo paints it as merely another potential disaster to which many people bear witness. Meanwhile, Jack tries to appreciate the sunset and the creeping dread it engenders in him. He sees men in Mylex suits in the area, still running tests after the airborne toxic event; he avoids his doctor’s calls even though he’s been exposed to toxins; worst of all, the local supermarket’s shelves—the emblem of consistency in daily life—have been rearranged without warning. DeLillo perfectly captures humanity’s inability to impede the ominous forces that sidle into otherwise wondrous moments; the way that small changes can presage calamity; and the fact that life’s tragic incompleteness and its ineffable beauty are two sides of the same coin.

Yet Baumbach forgoes DeLillo’s contemplative ending in favor of a bizarre spectacle: a dance number set in the supermarket featuring the film’s entire extended cast, soundtracked to a new song by LCD Soundsystem. As much as the sequence impresses as a piece of conceptual blocking, it belies the ambivalence at the heart of DeLillo’s novel, reducing it to a simplistic expression of optimism in the face of the ever-present unknown. For DeLillo, life’s ecstasy and its terror were one and the same, an idea made literal every day when we hear banal and apocalyptic news reported in the same breath. Baumbach intends to communicate that rapturous delight still exists within the American family, a “cradle of misinformation,” but instead he leaves us with a false note of escapism. “We are the highest form of life on earth,” DeLillo writes, “and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die.” That crucial irony is lost within Baumbach’s expression of reckless abandon.

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