Film Review: “White Noise” — Toxic Prophecy

By Tim Jackson

By drawing on the insight and humor in Don DeLillo’s novel, Noah Baumbach manages to find (at least for me) affirmation and comfort in this portrait of the randomness of contemporary existence.

White Noise, directed by Noah Baumbach. Now playing at Landmark Kendall Square Cinema. Streaming on Netflix beginning December 30.

A scene from White Noise.

When it came out in 1985, Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise didn’t strike many as a likely candidate for a film adaptation. Told in three contrasting sections and broken into 40 short chapters, DeLillo’s dry satire of modern life is filled with what spills out of the mouths of an eccentric collection of characters in the fictional college town of Blacksmith: a steady stream of hysterical opinions, conspiracy theories, and rampant misinformation. Having read the book decades ago, and being confronted with a pandemic, director Noah Baumbach took up the challenge of adapting this exercise in postmodern fiction. He was inspired by the book’s longest chapter, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” where Baumbach saw clear parallels to what we had all been going through.

Because the novel is built out of the discursive overflow of random knowledge, pseudo-scientific babble, and fake news, Baumbach decided to insert hefty sections of the book’s dialogue into the script. In the film, the book’s three sections break down into three different types of movies: a satire, a disaster epic, and a family drama. This tripartite structure is not a significant diversion from DeLillo’s original. The chemistry between Baumbach regular Adam Driver and the director’s life and writing partner, Greta Gerwig, help make the rapid-fire dialogue and narrative disconnections believable.

Adam Driver is Jack Gladney, a middle-aged professor who has developed a renowned course on “Hitler Studies” at the “College on the Hill.” Highly respected in the field that he invented, Jack strides the campus in dark glasses, sporting his professor’s gown like bat wings. In class and with his family he tends to be overly dramatic and pedantic — yet he holds a sense of existential dread at bay. He is insecure about his reputation, particularly stung by the fact that he is a Hitler scholar who speaks no German. Gerwig plays his wife, Babette, over-permed with a wild mop of what is called “important hair” in the book. She is mother to four children from the couple’s multiple previous marriages: Heinrich, Steffie, Denise, and Wilder. Her employment on the side: she reads to a blind man named Mr. Treadwell and teaches classes on posture and nutrition to the elderly. A vivacious presence, Babette nevertheless stifles her paralyzing fear of death by secretly taking an unapproved experimental drug named Dylar.

The first section, “Waves and Radiation,” is awash with random facts and whacked-out theories. The actors fly through their dialogue, often stepping on one another’s lines in homage to Robert Altman. Don Cheadle is Jack’s best friend, Murray, a scholar on Elvis; he’s a cool professor with hot theories about television’s deleterious effects. He waxes on about such topics as the spiritual nature of the grocery store, with its display of codes and symbols. At one point, in a conversation straight from the novel, the two professors one-up each other with theories comparing Elvis and Hitler before a lecture hall of young students. Elvis and Hitler were both, in the esteemed opinion of the academics, mama’s boys.

In Section Two, “The Airborne Toxic Event,” a railway car jumps its tracks and spills a noxious chemical that pollutes the air via a great dark cloud. Babette’s excitable sense of dread counters her husband’s more blasé attitude.

Babette: Let’s think about the billowing cloud just a little bit, OK. What if it’s dangerous?
Jack: Everything in train chain cars is dangerous. The effects are mainly long range.
Babette: So you die later?
Jack: You don’t die. Not from this. All we have to do is stay out of the way.
Babette: Let’s be just sure to keep it in the back of our minds.

Their precocious son Heinrich is ever ready with facts and data. “They’re not calling it ‘black billowing cloud’ anymore” he says. “What are they calling it,” Jack asks. “The Airborne Toxic Event.” Jack pauses. “Names are not important” he declares. But, after the spill drifts in their direction and forces the family to flee along with the rest of the town, Jack is accidentally exposed to the toxic air. The doctor tells Jack not to worry because the symptoms may not appear for 30 or 40 years. That diagnosis may sound risible, but consider the long-term effects of preservatives, plastics, and GMO crops. Here, and elsewhere, ‎White Noise is uncannily prophetic.

In the final Section, “Dylarama,” Denise exposes her mother’s secret addiction to Dylar, an experimental drug that is allegedly designed to neutralize the part of the brain that fears death. Jack sets about hunting down the bootlegger who may have been trading the illegal drug for anonymous sex with Babette. “I was so desperate” she says, adding that she did wear a ski mask (her daughter’s) during each encounter. Suddenly we’re thrust into a kind of comic domestic film noir, an adventure that features a hospital encounter with German nuns who express a spurious relationship to faith.

While it doesn’t reach the absurdist heights of DeLillo’s visionary novel, Baumbach’s effort is faithful to its spirit. White noise is defined as a combination (collision?) of all the different frequencies of sound. Metaphorically, it is the river of half-baked information and beliefs that never stop proliferating: in tabloids, in online platforms, on Fox News, in propaganda, advertising. and even from the mouth of our 45th president. The chaos of unverified facts, half-formed ideas, dead-end plots, inane speculation, the online clamor for attention and affirmation, the breakdown of meaning in language, and the separation of truth from reality have increased exponentially since DeLillo’s prescient book was published.

Baudrillard declared: ‘The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” White Noise, both the novel and film, is an exploration of the artificiality of modern life, its mind-numbing flow of ideas and information, dangers and uncertainties, from which there is no escape. By drawing on the insight and humor in DeLillo’s book, Baumbach manages to find (at least for me) affirmation and comfort in this portrait of the randomness of contemporary existence. The center may not hold, and what we call reality may be giving way to a befuddling relativity. But, when the Dylar (or the Celexa, Lexapro, Luvox, Paxil, and Zoloft) runs out, we may just have to adjust to life, however we choose to define it.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story. And two short films: Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem and The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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