Vague Visages’ White Noise review contains minor spoilers. Noah Baumbach’s 2022 Netflix movie stars Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Raffey Cassidy. Check out more film reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.
Adapting a beloved, classic book for the screen is always a difficult task. The release of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s latest feature film, White Noise, means that Don DeLillo’s 1985 National Book Award-winning novel has finally been given the cinematic treatment, despite its movie rights first being sold back in 1999. The film has been made for Netflix, and stars frequent Baumbach collaborators Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig (who is also Baumbach’s partner). It was perhaps not expected that DeLillo’s novel would get an adaptation on such scale and with access to this much money: it is reported that White Noise had an $80 million budget, which is approximately four times the amount Baumbach was given to make his last film, the multiple-Oscar nominated Marriage Story (2019).
It is therefore very pleasing to be able to say that White Noise is a success. Broadly speaking, this is due to its successful balance of faithfulness and necessary departure from the source material, and of ideas being expressed on the level of verbose dialogue (which feels most at home on the page) and the advantage taken of the new visual licenses of the big screen (which is bolstered by the budget at Baumbach’s disposal). White Noise playfully and transparently alludes to its status as a literary adaptation by being so unashamedly wordy, particularly in part one — which, like in the novel, is titled “Waves and Radiation.”
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White Noise’s first section mostly takes place at the “College-on-the-Hill” where Jack Gladney (Driver) is an esteemed professor who has pioneered the specialized field of “Hitler Studies.” Like the novel, Baumbach’s film centralizes Jack’s academic rivalry with Murray Jay Siskind (Don Cheadle), who is a professor in Hitler Studies’ major research competition: “Elvis Studies.” It is Murray who opens White Noise, giving a lecture to his curious but somewhat bewildered students on the distinction between “optimism” and “fun” within the context of car crashes. The lecture recalls the English author J. G. Ballard’s earlier novel Crash (1973) and its interests in simulation and sensationalism, which are at the heart of DeLillo’s novel and by extension Baumbach’s film too.
The academic stage of “Waves and Radiation” sees White Noise highlight the physicality, kineticism and positive chaos of university life, for both staff and students. The scenes set at the family home shared by Jack, his wife Babette (Gerwig) and their children are an extension of this and offer a literalization of Jack’s inability to leave his work at work. The elevated, erudite conversations between Jack and Babette’s four children/stepchildren — particularly the precocious wit of Heinrich (Sam Nivola) — show how Jack’s personality has rubbed off on them, with Henrich but also Steffie (May Nivola) possessing a similar scholarly inability to switch off. But this shared hyper-awareness proves useful for the Gladney family in the second part of White Noise, which — like in the novel — is almost an extended standalone set piece.
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Academic, bookish obsession is at its most heightened at the end of “Waves and Radiation,” as Jack and Murray have an impromptu Hitler-Elvis lecture duel, with their students and colleagues as audience, which is as ridiculous as it sounds. This White Noise scene shows where Baumbach’s writing/directing of performance and proxemics pushes the source material to its comedic limits, which is something he is guilty of later for the better (an instantly iconic supermarket dance sequence, which plays during the credits and is set to LCD Soundsystem’s fantastic track written for the film, “new body rhumba”) or worse (an extended, vaguely dreamlike episode at a nun hospital towards the end). But this duel scene is played for laughs that are qualified by impending threat and peril: Baumbach crosscuts between the Jack-Murray showdown and the rail car chemical spill which leads directly into the second section. This one is titled “The Airborne Toxic Event” and resembles a disaster movie, as the chemical spill triggers a noxious black cloud spreading over the region the Gladneys live in.
The shift to “The Airborne Toxic Event” is signposted by Jack earlier in White Noise: “all plots move deathward… this is the nature of plots.” Other epigrams such as “whatever relaxes you is dangerous” also anticipate this middle section of the film, which leaves people panicking by packing their lives into suitcases, and piling into their cars, before they are all assigned base camps run by “SIMUVAC.” The organization is hilariously Kafkaesque (and, considering its centrality to the novel, somewhat underused), deemed equipped to lead civilians through this crisis. But SIMUVAC does so by treating the real evacuation as another simulation, as the members have been trained to do, and thus constantly downplays the seriousness of what is happening.
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The Gladneys are no more prepared or better off for having anticipatory information before this event; this a recurring, debilitating fact in White Noise. Another memorable line, which becomes a refrain, underlines a degree of self-awareness of this obstacle. It is something that Jack, Babette and their children must actively circumnavigate if they wish to survive the ATE: “family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.” The Gladney’s collective need to escape themselves and employ their self-awareness for more productive means is returned to later on, in part three (“Dylarama”). Here, Babette drops a bombshell confession on her husband, which the spectator suspects may be better received if her delivery was not so self-reflexive. That is, if her confession was not such a meta-confession and aspired for sincerity instead of turning in on itself and discussing its own status as a confession, perhaps the spectator would believe that Jack is really forgiving her.
It seems that this is Babette’s character flaw — just as it is a mutual Gladney flaw — but White Noise does see Baumbach occasionally lose his grip on the film’s ironic detachment from this problem of words over genuine, useful action. Scenes such as Babette’s very staged confession drift towards becoming the film’s shortcoming, instead of a diagnosis of the Gladney family as flawed and self-destructive. It undermines the more intelligent handling of irony in the depiction of an America complicit in capitalist, corporatized rhetoric, speaking in code, which is evident in earlier supermarket scenes. One of these sees Jack randomly bump into Murray, emphasizing once again how academia becomes a disruptively hyper-real space, bleeding into domestic and public spheres that should be separate and external to the university campus.
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Jack and Murray proceed to speak in what is almost verse; it is that far removed from real, autonomous, everyday dialogue. Jack’s pretension in moments like this is a sustained performance, something which determines his whole life, as shown when he sneaks away from his family and colleagues for private German lessons ahead of an important Hitler Studies conference (where everyone in attendance will expect the field’s maestro to be fluent in the language). Jack has a secret, just like his wife Babette, but also like the other Gladneys and more peripheral characters in the wider net of White Noise’s fictionalized America.
At its best, Noah Baumbach’s impressive and thoroughly decent adaptation of White Noise interestingly discusses people’s relatable ownership of secrets yet complete inability to internalize them. The cinematic canvas for this exploration is fittingly grand, and it’s worth the almost four-decade wait. In similar fashion to Jordan Peele’s Nope earlier this year, White Noise uses its money and scale to encourage its audience to look and point at the sky as disaster strikes, even if they are then packed like sardines in small spaces, where the authorities do not seem to know what they are doing, despite being responsible for steering them through the crisis.
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“We are quarantined,” someone says during the ATE, which is undeniably the standout section of White Noise. Another paradoxically self-aware and entirely unproductive spoken piece of information, the announcement tells the spectator what they have always known. The doors to the cinema have been locked and audiences are trapped, if they have even come in the first place. If they have not: the supermarket, family home, school and everywhere else the audience tries to escape to is as claustrophobic and suffocating.
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a PhD candidate/graduate teaching assistant at King’s College London, a short fiction writer and a freelance culture writer. He is also an assistant editor at Coastal Shelf. George’s recent and forthcoming publications include Avatar Review, Derailleur Press and Offscreen. In 2020, he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ Short Story Competition.
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