White Noise, New and Improved

How Noah Baumbach transformed a classic satire

Christine Smallwood

Adam Driver as Jack and Greta Gerwig as Babette in White Noise. Courtesy Netflix

Noah Baumbach specializes in films about family dynamics, specifically the dynamics of white, upper-middle-class families of artists and intellectuals (or aspiring artists and intellectuals). His other, closely related subject is the drama of artistic and intellectual ambition itself, especially as it pertains to the pain and anxiety—and selfishness and cruelty—of the almost-great, those who are bitterly consumed by the fear of failure and the delusions and disappointments of success. For example: the last shot of The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), which shows the one sculpture Meyerowitz ever sold to a museum going back into its storage coffin. Or the older brother in The Squid and the Whale (2005) trying to pass off a Pink Floyd song as his own (“I could have written it”).

Before his newest film, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, which reportedly cost more than a hundred million dollars and features one derailed train, several car crashes, a CGI toxic plume, and crowd scenes involving hundreds of extras, Baumbach worked on a relatively small scale, limiting the bodies in the frame to a number that could comfortably (or uncomfortably) squeeze into a brownstone living room. White Noise is also expansive in terms of film history. Baumbach’s last film, Marriage Story (2019), was an homage to Bergman, but White Noise veers merrily from quotation to quotation. This is Baumbach’s first project not from an original script (he did write the screenplay), and the fact of adaptation seems to have freed him to indulge in pastiche. Or maybe it’s his way of bringing to life one of the symptoms of exposure to Nyodene D, the fictional toxin that suffuses DeLillo’s novel: déjà vu. There are nods to Hitchcock’s Notorious, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Godard’s Weekend (particularly the tracking shot of a hysterical traffic jam rife with carnage) as well as Tout Va Bien; the entire “Airborne Toxic Event” sequence is a loving homage to the films of Baumbach’s childhood—Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a side of Meatballs and National Lampoon’s Vacation. The neon noir of the film’s last third has been filtered through Wim Wenders, and the nested half-circles of the Gladneys’ headboard recall not only the sunsets of DeLillo’s novel but the Looney Tunes logo. As if to set you up for the game of spot-the-reference, the first shot in White Noise is of a film projector, and the first words we hear are “OK, roll film.”

But despite the increased scale of production and referentiality, White Noise is recognizably a Noah Baumbach film. I don’t mean only that Baumbach’s references constitute a kind of autobiography—they do—but that, through a series of deliberate choices, he turns White Noise into a story that only he could direct. DeLillo’s novel is a satire of both cultural waste and cultural studies, a snake eating its tail. Baumbach’s film is about a middle-aged academic in a marriage crisis, trying and failing and trying again to be a good father and husband and to maintain his reputation in the field while the world crashes senselessly around him. Irony menaces from every direction, but when the Gladney family gathers around the television, they do it in Baumbachian style, with chopsticks and old-school take-out Chinese containers, the white cardboard ones with the metal handles that we had when we were kids. The sets are crammed with absurd visual gags and high-fructose nostalgia, colors scattered like an exploded package of Skittles. A scientist holds a smoking beaker while drinking a Yoo-hoo, and a display in the supermarket cheerily advertises Hi-C.

Just as Jack and Babette are drawn to death, Baumbach is drawn to stories of marital fracture and repair.

This is not only a matter of production details. Baumbach’s Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), creator of the academic field of “Hitler Studies,” may wield power over his students and colleagues, but at home he’s bumbling and bewildered and in over his head—an eighties dad trying to keep up with the kids. (Baumbach is always an excellent director of children, and this film is no exception; the actors who play the Gladney kids are, as Jack says of his wife’s chili-fried chicken, “first-rate.”) The sense of alienation and malaise that permeates DeLillo’s novel—told, in the first person, from Jack’s point of view—is still present in the film, but it recedes in the lived chaos of family life. DeLillo’s novel subordinates the Gladneys to the “white noise” pulsating and pressing on them—when his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), says she will read Jack a smutty book, so long as it doesn’t involve anyone “entering” anyone else, she is giving us a key to how DeLillo understands character—but Baumbach can’t help but imply interiority. This is in part because he’s making a movie: actors’ bodies have a way of helplessly suggesting real people. But mostly it’s because, just as Jack and Babette are drawn to death, Baumbach is drawn to stories of marital fracture and repair.

The film hits the novel’s major beats: Students arrive on campus for the fall semester; Jack gives deranged, operatic performances at the lectern and wanders the aisles of the local grocery store with Babette and their four children. An “airborne toxic event” forces the family to evacuate their home and take shelter in a scout camp with hundreds of other refugees. (This event may have seemed dystopian in 1984, but in our post-Katrina world it registers as a normal facet of climate crisis.) Jack, who, despite having pioneered Hitler Studies, cannot speak German, secretly takes language lessons, trying to master the basics before a big conference he’s hosting. (Baumbach gives this conference more emotional weight than DeLillo does, making it a kind of artistic performance or reckoning.) In the novel, the Gladneys are visited by exes and extended family, and the intense sunsets caused by the airborne event draw crowds to the highway overpass. The movie leaves all of that out, as well as the world’s most photographed barn.

If Baumbach is mostly faithful to DeLillo’s details of campus and climate, he takes more significant license elsewhere. In both versions, we learn that Babette has been trading sex for an experimental drug called Dylar that promises to take away the fear of death. In the novel, Jack confronts the man who has been providing the drug and shoots him, then takes him to a hospital where he is cared for by German-speaking nuns who confess that they do not believe in angels or any other fairy tales. Then he drives home and gets into bed next to Babette. He comes close to death and close to transcendence, and it’s a solitary experience. In the film, Babette interrupts the action at the motel, which becomes an adventure that brings her and Jack closer together. They clean up the mess together. They meet the nuns together. (“You should believe in each other,” the nun mutters, when they ask if she believes in Heaven—a line not found in the novel.) It wouldn’t make sense for Baumbach not to include Babette in these events; the whole point of his film is to bring the family unit, which has been threatened by deception and infidelity, back together. Baumbach has made several films about divorce, but against all odds, White Noise believes that Jack and Babette, who are each other’s fourth marriage, can make it work. (He also makes the fourth child, Wilder, Jack and Babette’s biological son; in the novel, all of the children are from previous marriages.) The family may be “the cradle of the world’s misinformation”—and the source of its embarrassment, neuroses, and fear of abandonment—but for Baumbach, it’s also the cradle of hope.

Of all the strange and surreal elements in DeLillo’s novel—the drug Dylar; the “waves and radiation;” the emergency simulators; the young child Wilder bicycling across a four-lane highway; the fact that the department heads at the College on the Hill flap around campus in robes—nothing is stranger or more in need of explanation than that Jack Gladney, a small-pond big fish, goes shopping at the A&P with his wife and children. Babette is a mostly stay-at-home mom (she teaches exercise classes at the senior center at night) and it’s the 1980s, so it’s not like Jack would be expected to help with the running of the household. He certainly doesn’t cook any meals. But going to the supermarket in White Noise is not a chore; it’s an occasion for cultural studies.

Raffey Cassidy as Denise, Dean Moore/Henry Moore as Wilder, Sam Nivola as Heinrich, Adam Driver as Jack, Greta Gerwig as Babette, and May Nivola as Steffie in White Noise. Courtesy Wilson Webb/Netflix

The aisles stretch forth, clean and gleaming, wide and long. Jack’s colleague Murray (Don Cheadle), a transplant from New York City who teaches classes on Elvis and car crashes, compares the store to the bardo, a place between death and rebirth. “This place recharges us spiritually,” he says. “Look how bright. It’s full of psychic data.” Baumbach translates this visually: He filmed in 35mm anamorphic, and some of the shots inside the supermarket recall Andreas Gursky’s photograph 99 Cent, crammed with highly visible details that recede crisply.

We’ve been to the suburbs; we know how it is. “Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright,” writes DeLillo. The supermarket is an eternal present; a temple without decay, where the only death is the blood at the butcher counter—a kind of sacrificial offering to maintain the shelf stability of the dry and canned goods. (Later, Baumbach will have one of the butchers dramatically knife a cut of meat and shoot a single drop of blood on a shopper’s face.) “I realized the place was awash in noise,” Jack thinks in the novel. “The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”

Compare how DeLillo imagines the A&P to how Ben Lerner depicts the Whole Foods in his 2014 novel 10:04, where the narrator, shopping before Hurricane Irene makes landfall, takes a container of instant coffee off the shelf:

I held the red plastic container, one of the last three on the shelf, held it like the marvel that it was: the seeds inside the purple fruits of coffee plants had been harvested on Andean slopes and roasted and ground and soaked and then dehydrated at a factory in Medellín and vacuum-sealed and flown to JFK and then driven upstate in bulk to Pearl River for repackaging and then transported back by truck to the store where I now stood reading the label. It was as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it as they were threatened, stirred inside their packaging, lending it a certain aura—the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself now that planes were grounded and the highways were starting to close.

Lerner’s narrator lingers in the numinous “aura” of the commodity in order to dispel it, revealing the chain of labor and logistics that makes his shopping possible. There is a web of power and at every node a person—someone designed the machines and picked the beans and managed the plants and flew the planes. For DeLillo, what lies behind the data streams, the bright colors, the ATM passwords, the bank codes, the computer printouts, and the jangle of carts is not a system that we can ever untangle or understand. America is a casino that plays itself, and the slot machines are ringing; it’s the sublime all the way down. The “dull and unlocatable roar,” this “form of swarming life” is existential anguish itself, vibrating like feedback from an amplifier. It’s a nervous breakdown. Whatever critique of mystification is inherent in DeLillo’s description becomes further mystification, as the feedback is turned up to an ear-splitting screech (“The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies”). Lerner’s narrator goes on to think that, now that the coffee can is lit up, supercharged with its own history, “what normally felt like the only possible world became one of many, its meaning everywhere up for grabs, no matter how briefly.” Meaning for DeLillo is never up for grabs.

At first, it appears that Baumbach’s film makes no greater attempt at demystification than its source novel. The terms of White Noise exclude politics; they give, on the one hand, ambient dread and abstraction and, on the other, family crisis and hysterical malaise. Baumbach’s supermarket is a visual marvel of stimulation as vivid as it is deadening. The lines of cereal and racks of tabloids are sealed off from history, which is strange, as his shots of the A&P also bring to mind a film boiled in history, Godard’s Tout Va Bien. Perhaps the best cinematic treatment of the supermarket ever, Tout Va Bien is a postmortem of 1968 in which a band of angry workers from a sausage factory kidnaps their manager and holds him hostage. At the end of that film, the camera tracks back and forth in a vast Carrefour where the orderly checkout routine is disrupted by the workers urging shoppers to “liberate” the groceries. (We think of the giant superstore as a quintessentially American phenomenon, the product of our national gluttony and fascination with infinite variations on mostly identical goods, but the first hypermarché opened in Europe, in either France or Belgium, in the late 1960s.) As police beat them with batons, shoppers throw food at them and each other. The white noise of consumption and political sloganeering is broken by another form of collective life, one that has no place in DeLillo or Baumbach’s world—protest, rioting.

The point of the supermarket dance is to suggest a new way to behave, a new agreement.

What Baumbach can do with the supermarket is restricted not only by his own sensibility, which is resolutely humanist, but by the terms of the novel. Where Godard can exuberantly celebrate the manic red of the Coca-Cola logo while raging against the war in Vietnam, Baumbach’s Pepsi cans and boxes of Froot Loops can be only sinister or affectionately nostalgic. But the final sequence of the film, a spontaneous dance that breaks out in the A&P, suggests that there is a crack in the reality of the supermarket, that another form of swarming life is possible, that meaning is up for grabs; it also suggests that Baumbach is aware that the family is not a sufficient bulwark against despair. Having returned from the care of the nuns, Jack and Babette, “fragile creatures surrounded by hostile facts,” newly committed to themselves and each other, arrive at the sliding doors with their children. But when they cross over, having died and not yet born again, they lose themselves and each other, joining the other shoppers and the store’s workers in a choreographed dance to a James Murphy song that repeats the refrain “I need a new body.” The song is rapturous in the most literal sense, expressing the desire for a new body that the nuns themselves refused.

The family, which offers a comfort less frenzied than the crowd, can’t take away the fear of death. But it looks like dancing does, at least for a little while. And hasn’t the film been dancing all along? The camera slinking around as the kids move in and out of the frame; the rush of bodies stampeding out of the camp; even the car, swaying between rocks in the creek, had a kind of choreography. As in any movie musical, the only point of view on the dance is the viewer’s—if you were really in the store, you could see only one aisle, one part of the whole. This is Baumbach’s version of Godard’s giddy riot: it’s not political, exactly, but it points to another world, a world of fantasy and art and song. (“What if death is nothing but sound?” Jack asks in the book.) In the dance there is a sense of collective life that feels spontaneous but is planned and practiced, rehearsed. The moves are weird and a little spooky and fun. The point, I think, is that we have to earn optimism; it comes from discipline and collective effort. (Filmmaking itself is another such collective effort.) If to enter a room, as Babette’s Dylar dealer says, is to agree on a certain kind of behavior, then the point of the supermarket dance is to suggest a new way to behave, a new agreement.

Now is as good a time as any to say that I have no special attachment to the novel White Noise. I’m intrigued by it as a historical document, but for me it is not a sacred text and has little to say about “the way we live now.” In my view Baumbach’s movie is faithful to what is good in the book—it estranges reality; the actors make the stylized dialogue plausibly implausible—and in other ways he improves it. At the end of DeLillo’s novel, people gather in crowds to watch the toxic sunsets, finding wonder and awe in spectatorship. Baumbach at least allows them to move. “You should believe in each other,” the nun said, and I think we have no choice but to do so, even when all the evidence is against it. The last word of DeLillo’s novel is “dead;” the last word spoken in Baumbach’s film is “together.”

Christine Smallwood is the author of the novel The Life of the Mind (Hogarth, 2021).
Originally published:
January 9, 2023

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