The Cloud of Unknowing
This article appeared in the September 29, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Read more of our coverage of the 60th New York Film Festival here.
White Noise (Noah Baumbach, 2022)
There are certain novels that you wish you’d read the moment they came out. It’s not because they have since dated, but simply because it’s hard to recapture the uncanny frisson of sensing that a certain book represents its moment with pinpoint perfection. Read them one, two, four decades later and their freeze-framing of a mood has become a historical document. One such novel is Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), now adapted for the screen by Noah Baumbach. Read today, the book feels like a message from a distant past. Its depiction of 1980s America is conveyed in a tone of quizzical remoteness absolutely of its period, with an ambivalent sense of the new as something simultaneously thrilling and transcendentally banal. It was a prevalent tone of the time, in both pop culture and the intellectual world (see: Baudrillard et al.).
DeLillo’s novel was also innovative in its infusion of apocalyptic weirdness into a parody of the American campus novel (six years before Twin Peaks and Edward Scissorhands popularized the mode of suburban surrealism). Set in a generic U.S. college town, White Noise takes the enclosed culture of American academe and refracts it through a double lens: chilly detachment, on the one hand, and quasi-religious enthusiasm for consumer values, on the other. What would seem hardest to translate to film is DeLillo’s tone—sometimes incongruously poetic, but predominantly glassy and uninflected.
In his adaptation, Baumbach hasn’t tried to duplicate that tone. You can imagine that Michael Almereyda, previously slated to adapt the book, might have done that, as might have David Cronenberg, who did something similar in his version of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. But Baumbach, though substantially faithful to the novel’s content, changes the register, as if recognising that 21st-century cinema (and Netflix audiences) respond to a different energy; his White Noise possesses a madcap agitation, a splash of knowing kitsch in its replication of ’80s hair, clothes, and décor. He replaces the novel’s philosophical cool with a more demonstrative, sitcom-style irony—a kind of meta-goofiness.
The setting is the small world around an academic establishment referred to as the “College-on-the-Hill,” where Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a lecturer. Jack has carved out a place in U.S. academia by establishing himself—with a kind of innocent cynicism—as the figurehead of a new discipline, Hitler studies. The field comes across, in the book as well as the film, as both a serious preoccupation with modern history’s predominant embodiment of death and a trivialization of semiotic cultural studies—as well as an almost arbitrary career opportunity, given that Jack doesn’t even know German.
Jack and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) live with their various children from different marriages, a collaged nuclear family. The film’s centerpiece is a vast, elaborately mounted sequence in which the Gladneys flee an “Airborne Toxic Event,” the result of a tanker crash. Stepping far outside his typically restrained visual style, Baumbach lays on a spectacular comic microcosm of a disaster movie, as crowds flee, jam the highways, and hustle ruthlessly for space. These scenes revisit the mode of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released eight years before DeLillo’s book, in which the prospect of cosmic danger elicits innocent, open-jawed wonder. Here, as peril hovers in the skies, the Gladneys debate whether the looming threat should be properly described as a “plume” or a “cloud.” In their chaotic flight, their familiar world collapses around them—trauma of a sort that Spielberg wouldn’t begin to imagine until the sobering and tense War of the Worlds. And yet, amid it all, the Gladneys remain chipper, secure in their fragile togetherness; for them, the journey from the chemical frying pan into the social-breakdown fire is a farcical family adventure, a sort of National Lampoon’s American Apocalypse.
The domestic sections are Baumbach’s bravura touch: picking up on DeLillo’s idea of the family as “the cradle of the world’s misinformation,” he has the Gladney home resounding with snippets of speculation, pseudo-science, and colorful hearsay in overlapping dialogue that crackles with Altmanesque energy. Driver settles comfortably into the role of the bemused thinking-man’s paterfamilias, his manner taking on a strange subliminal resonance of Tom Hanks. Gerwig, wearing Babette’s “important hair” as an explosion of Bernadette Peters ringlets, adopts a solemn, sensible bustle; and Sam Nivola, as teenage son Heinrich, maintains an unimpressed edge of rationalism in the face of shaky parental reassurance.
Two moments involve discourse as a weapon of power. One takes place at a shelter for fugitives from the Toxic Event: Heinrich spontaneously captures a crowd’s attention with his explanation of what’s happening. Jack is proud to see the boy come out of himself and draw attention, but he’s also aware of losing his own power, and perhaps of seeing his son as an emerging demagogue (today, we know Heinrich could easily become one online). Then there’s the scene where Jack walks in on a class led by his colleague Murray, the college’s resident dispenser of quizzical Barthesian insights into the everyday (pop culture as an object of rarefied academic study was still a weird and wonderful novelty in 1985). Murray is lecturing on the cultural significance of Elvis when Jack starts matching his Presliana with corresponding facts about Hitler, and drowns him out in an increasingly intense pas de deux of discursive authority (or just volume). That the film casts an enthusiastically tweedy Don Cheadle, making the Murray character Black, adds a dimension not necessarily apparent in the book, but that contemporary readers and viewers can hardly miss. “White noise,” as well as representing death and the omnipresent din of consumerism, also suggests the constant buzz of white bourgeois culture, deafening a population to historical and political realities.
The climax comes after the calamity has subsided—or at least, been absorbed, subsumed into a state of new normal—and the film returns to a mystery set up in its first part, the riddle of Babette’s secret self-medication. This strand comes to a head with Jack heading out to confront the shady figure who has been providing Babette with an experimental drug, a kind of metaphysical Prozac. Jack’s unflappable affability cracks wide open when, as both detective and obsessively jealous husband, he goes in pursuit of the elusive “Mr. Gray” (played by Lars Eidinger at his creepiest). Here, the film spins off into an entirely different nightmare register, which is perhaps where Baumbach is most faithful to the book: the denouement makes for a radical tonal disruption, in which the smooth, wry surfaces of this narrative world splinter in a kind of dissociative breakdown.
The darkness is at last relieved by an end credits sequence that takes the upbeat vibe to a bright-eyed extreme. Set to a new LCD Soundsystem number by James Murphy, the set piece is a nod to a different ’80s, one that doesn’t figure in the novel’s imaginative frame—the decade of Devo and Talking Heads music videos. This epilogue suggests, with something like relief, a return to an optimistic faith in consumerism’s reassuring glow—as represented by the gleaming white church of the Gladneys’ local supermarket—and a future that surely must be better than what’s come before. Bitter though the irony is, this unexpectedly exuberant ending returns us to the dimension of Baumbach’s film that is simply fun. Fun, of course, is another form of white noise, and in contemporary cinema it has become deafening. Everyone will have their own take on how successfully Baumbach fiddles with the volume.
Jonathan Romney is a critic based in London. He writes for the Observer, Sight & Sound, Screen Daily, and others, and teaches at the National Film and Television School.