Some novels leave an indelible impression. I read Don DeLillo’s White Noise shortly after it appeared in the mid-1980s but can still remember whole passages and even certain sentences. It is a book of verbal gymnastics that Noah Baumbach has made into an equally wordy film, largely by quoting DeLillo verbatim.
Baumbach shows an unusual respect for the author, but the results only confirm that the best adaptations are drawn from short stories or pulp fiction. Despite its satirical thrust, White Noise is too literary, too much a novel of ideas, to be easily converted into cinema. Where DeLillo allows his characters to exchange banter over 300 pages, Baumbach condenses all the best lines into a little more than two hours. It gives the film a stilted, unnatural feel, as if everyone were making prepared speeches rather than simply conversing.
Although this renders White Noise strangely uninvolving – as if we were watching everything from the sidelines without ever getting caught up in the action – there’s also a pleasure in such ambitious dialogue. After sitting through the banalities of the latest Avatar and various superhero movies, it’s almost a relief to come across a film that obliges one to sit up and listen.
Most of the talking comes from Adam Driver, who plays Jack Gladney, middle-aged and paunchey, a renowned professor of Hitler Studies at a midwestern university. Jack has mastered his subject so convincingly he is the envy of his colleagues in the Department of Popular Culture. It is, however, slightly embarrassing that he’s never learned to speak German, and is frantically taking lessons before hosting a conference of international scholars.
Jack is married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), who teaches posture to seniors, among other educational duties. Between them, they have four children from an array of different marriages.
The noisy equilibrium of academic and family life is unexpectedly upset by an accident that sees a tanker full of toxic waste collide with a train packed with poisonous chemicals. The explosion sends a gigantic cloud of gas surging towards the university town, forcing Jack and his family to flee, joining a long convoy of vehicles trying to escape the “airborne toxic event”.
In the third part of the film, when life has returned to normal, Jack becomes increasingly concerned about a mysterious pill Babette has been taking. The revelations that follow when he confronts her and learns the truth, set off a surreal train of events that pull the scattered themes of the story together.
The number one, unmistakable theme is Death. Jack thinks about death all the time and has become obsessed with Hitler as an iconic figure who seems to have defeated mortality. It comes as a surprise, though, when he finds that Babette, whose “whole point” is that she “reveals and confides”, has been concealing her own manic fear of death. What’s doubly concerning is that Jack believes he has been infected by the “airborne toxic event” and can feel his own end approaching.
As each chapter of this tale unfolds, we become increasingly aware of what the “white noise” of the title signifies. To begin with it’s the empty philosophising of Jack and his fellow professors, as they artfully deconstruct the events of history, popular culture and everyday life. The most voluble is Jack’s friend, Murray (Don Cheadle), who dreams of starting his own course of Elvis Studies. The film begins with Murray screening a reel of car crashes from American movies and discoursing on the great “optimism” he finds in these scenes. Later, as he wanders around the supermarket with Jack, Murray compares the aura of commercial retail with that of a Tibetan temple.
Murray’s confident outpourings of academic verbiage are only outdone by Jack’s rhapsodic analysis of Hitler, which he springs on a dazzled student audience in the Elvis class. DeLillo perfectly captured the atmosphere of the Humanities departments of the 1980s, when Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (trans. 1972) had inspired leagues of eager semioticians. Today, the fanciful verbiage is all about race and gender.
The second meaning of “white noise” is the relentless barrage of information delivered by the mass media, rendering news and entertainment indistinguishable. When one of Jack’s children shouts “Plane crash!”, the entire family runs to the TV set to watch a small airplane crashing to the ground. So accustomed has the family become to watching disasters on TV that it comes as a shock when a real disaster forces them to leave their home.
One thinks of the “catastrophism” the French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, once discerned as a permanent feature of American life. This constant awareness of impending catastrophe, which permeates film and TV, finds expression in the fear of nuclear war, of aliens, of earthquakes, cyclones, and now the climate crisis. Jack and Babette’s deep-seated fear of death is a creation of the culture in which they have grown up.
Relief from these anxieties comes through shopping, as if we might shield ourselves from death by surrounding ourselves with commodities. The characters return time and again to the supermarket, where they stroll around being lulled by soft muzak, taking in the displays, while Murray offers a commentary. One suspects the brightly lit, luridly coloured supermarket is modelled on Andreas Gursky’s 99 cent (1999), once the most expensive photo in the world.
The ultimate expression of “white noise” is death itself: that state in which all meaning is nullified, all clarity lost. Jack speculates: “What if death is nothing but sound?”, a never-ending hiss of electrical noise and flickering particles, a permanent loss of reception.
DeLillo’s story may be almost 40 years old, but in the wake of the pandemic it has taken on a new resonance. The academic discourse of the present-day is different but just as empty, the consumerism more rampant, the use of opioids more pervasive, the sense of impending catastrophe even greater. We’ve come closer to the edge, to that point – as Murray says in one of his supermarket meditations – where we need to stop denying death “and simply walk toward the sliding doors”.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach, after a novel by Don DeLillo
Starring: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Raffey Cassidy, Lars Eidinger, Jodie Turner-Smith, Sam Gold, Carlos Jacott, André 3000
USA/UK, M, 136 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 7 January, 2023