This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news. Here: Noah Baumbach's White Noise.
Last Updated: 09.22 PM, Jan 18, 2023
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THE ONE MOMENT in Noah Baumbach’s White Noise that makes sense – where characters speak like real humans, where they express actual emotions, where you can feel the moral tension and accumulation of history – looks like a scene straight out of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. One partner admits to infidelity and breaks down; the other gets unpredictable, hostile, sad, tender, jealous. There’s yelling and tears. There are shattered words and sighs. Without giving away too much, let me just say that the cheating here is driven by a fear of death. The reason the moment looks authentic is because the weight of mortality finally hijacks the film after several unsuccessful attempts.
Up until then, there remains a constant tussle between death anxiety and cultural white noise, where the latter – defined by the consumerism of supermarkets and TV news, the intellectualism of college professors, the sensationalism of an “airborne toxic event” forcing an evacuation – always seems to defeat the former. As a result, for most of the film, the central family and their experiences appear strange and inert and shapeless, as if they are reality influenced by the distractions of 1980s capitalism. They communicate in robotic phrases and elaborate musings, like Wes Anderson characters stripped of their visual language. They behave like plastic sitcom faces, like people whose reactions are almost never in sync with what’s happening to them. They are white noise itself, until the moment jolts the parents out of their information-induced reverie. That’s when life makes a fleeting comeback, and the film springs to fleeting life.
The problem with White Noise is that its postmodern themes only exist in theory. Quite literally. Noah Baumbach’s (weakest) film is an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, a classic of postmodern fiction. If one isn’t exposed to the million interpretations of the book over the years, Baumbach’s movie plays out like ambitious gibberish – a too-literal, too-literary and too-loyal translation that’s more of a reverential ode than a flexible translation. In fact, even if one is aware of the discourse, it’s nearly impossible to engage with White Noise; it wants to be admired rather than liked, seen rather than felt. I had to read film critic Alissa Wilkinson’s succinct explanatory piece in Vox myself – to understand what the movie was trying to say, and how a film-maker can so completely miss the point of adapting literature. The method of the movie’s persistent madness might come to light, sure, but it’s hard to fathom how Baumbach – one of the foremost ‘family’ storytellers of our times – refuses to infuse the material with his voice. He keeps it consistently vague, expecting the viewer to realise that the unfilmable nature of the novel is in itself one of the film’s messages. I’m not a fan of self-conscious abstract stuff, less so when it’s bereft of imagination and touch.
Watching White Noise is therefore a bizarre and bewildering experience, particularly because the satire could have been so much more. The anti-premise revolves around a middle-aged professor of “Hitler Studies” Jack (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) and their four children, three of whom are from their previous marriages. The implication, of course, is that emotions are so diluted by the aggressive influx of pop culture in 1980s America that multiple marriages – and an overall failure of human connection – are par for the course. Babette is secretly ingesting mysterious pills, Jack is full of concepts and performative love, and the kids speak over each other in a way that evokes the calming hum of traffic and urban ambience. It’s going fine till a train accident releases poisonous gas into the air and towns are advised to evacuate, at which point White Noise turns into the sort of stilted survival drama that thinks it’s better than M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. After a bunch of poker-faced adventures featuring a makeshift refugee camp and a car floating down a river, the crisis abruptly ends and life is back to ordinary. Except it’s not. Babette is acting mysterious (more human, basically), and the couple reaches a crossroad of reckoning.
The story is incidental. No amount of description matters. Everything is an allegory for something else. Every plot detail is a commentary on an America that’s stranded at the intersection of fact and fiction, brands and breathing, technology and thinking. I suppose Baumbach chose to adapt this in 2022 because of its eerie timeliness: the toxic atmosphere, the lockdowns, the collective paranoia, the infections. But the staging of the ‘airborne event’ doesn’t do enough to tap into our post-pandemic trauma. It isn’t interested in drawing any meaningful parallels. We get a sense of a film-maker trying to be irreverent, actors following the brief to the T, and everyone getting consumed by the legacy of the source material. There’s no emotion, rhythm or intellectual heft to what’s happening on screen. It’s almost gimmicky in its pursuit of postcoital depth. It unfurls like a giant detour that mirrors our escapist relationship with death and belonging; the idea is there, but it feels like food without thought. Lines are narrated in a tone that suggests the entire book – and film – is prescient in its reading of brain-fades, the internet, fascism, millennial activism and digital intimacy. Yet, the storytelling is so designed, so desperate to flaunt its chattiness, that the whole of White Noise sounds like the smug Twitter handle of an author who condescends on underconfident followers. That’s not a nice feeling.
We often reflect on movies we dislike, wondering what they meant and why they were so aloof towards us. But White Noise barely merits this, because it makes unoriginal observations about a world it refuses to occupy. And it pretends to be original, by being incoherent about messy truths. After the confession sequence, White Noise snaps back to its distant form, playing out like a book that was never meant to be picturised. By lending porous images to a narrative that encourages readers to be perceptive, it destroys our agency to ponder. And if there’s one thing white noise does, it lulls us into a state of willful denial. It doesn’t help if the film itself is swallowed by that denial.