How Noah Baumbach’s ‘White Noise’ reinvents DeLillo’s novel

Discussing cinematic car crashes at the end of Don DeLillo’s classic novel “White Noise,” an academic friend tells the story’s protagonist, “Look past the violence, Jack. There’s a wonderful overflowing spirit of innocence and fun.” It’s one of those silly stereotypes that the characters use to make sense of a meaningless world in the book. In Noah Baumbach’s adaptation, it’s part of the opening scene: Scholar (Don Cheadle’s Murray Siskind) shows off a series of stunt accidents for his students, and his comments set the tone for the movie.

The violence of the novel is there—man-made disaster, attempted murder, Nazism—but so is a pervasive spirit of innocence and fun, along with perhaps the first dazzling visual flair it has kept hidden in a Baumbach film. very very long way. While the book builds a kind of fatalistic surrender, Baumbach’s version of “White Noise” is truly exuberant. Case in point: In a scene of a closing supermarket, DeLillo described shoppers as “aimless and haunted.” The movie ends with an eight-minute dance number, which also includes the large cast.

However, as a framework The duality bypasses the complexity of the source material. There was always a bubbling domestic comedy at the center of the novel, and not the bitter, dysfunctional kind we’ve seen in previous Baumbach films. Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) truly care for each other; marriage shines with tenderness. Baumbach runs off with his children’s whimsical energy and lets it spill over into other parts of his movie, portraying even the more difficult third part of the story with humor and compassion that echoes the tone of the book. Rather than betray the novel’s brutal critique of modern life, Baumbach’s approach illuminates DeLillo’s humanism in the director’s least cynical and easily the most daring film since Kicking and Screaming.

Like the novel “White Noise”, the movie consists of three separate parts. “Waves and Radiation” introduces us to the Gladney family and Jack’s academic work in the Hitler studies department, the first of its kind. “The Airborne Toxic Event” follows an industrial chemical spill that puts the family’s life in crisis. Set in the second half of both the book and the movie, “Dylarama” documents Babette secretly participating in an unauthorized medical experiment.

In Baumbach’s film, intellectual satire, environmental disaster story and film noir merge more seamlessly than in the novel. The shadowy, rogue apothecary figure that dominates the third part of the story is no longer disoriented by a late entry, but rather drifts away like a ghost in the first and second episodes. More importantly, Baumbach makes a bold and different choice to bring Babette to the culmination confrontation and its consequences. His presence adds a precious note of elegance that adds to the film’s startling optimism.

It was Brian De Palma, not an innocent entertainer, who suggested to Baumbach that he consider an adaptation to try things Baumbach’s own scripts wouldn’t allow. The second filmmaker co-directed a documentary about De Palma in 2016, and they seemed like an unlikely duo at the time: old, scary, and scary (originals like “Blow Out”, adaptations including “Carrie”) an auteur, teen, adult mumblecore ‘ (“Greenberg”, “Frances Ha”) was firmly planted on the borders.

Adam Driver is in a De Palmavari film noir scene showcasing director Noah Baumbach’s newly discovered visual spectrum in “White Noise.”

(Wilson Webb / Netflix)

Still, while watching “White Noise,” the pairing is starting to make sense. Who knew Baumbach had the ability to choreograph intricate crowd scenes, to crane crashing and burning trains, or to shoot a payback at a sleazy motel bathed in neon-lit De Palma canopies? Absolutely no one is familiar with Baumbach’s filmography, where his most striking image to date is two silent people in an empty subway car.

Despite its long inadmissibility, DeLillo’s story contains a number of memorable visual moments, and Baumbach capitalizes on that. A first act set is tweeped in a classroom so unbelievably it seems like a tribute to former collaborator Wes Anderson. But what started as a color block composition and Fair Isle suddenly starts Urgency in Baumbach’s hands. He adds not only the relevant footage, but also the accelerating accident of the poison event that the book hardly speculates about. In the process he draws a line from mass hysteria to human carelessness, the consequences of which can be similarly disastrous. And isn’t that the theme of the last few years?

The emergency response to the Airborne Toxic Event is the centerpiece of both the book and the movie, and Baumbach brings it to life with his own flair: Seussian air-purifying trucks; The hazmat suits are a little more gorgeous than they should be (thanks to Ann Roth, who made De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” costume). “The toxic event sparked an imagination,” DeLillo wrote, and we tour the evacuation camp to watch the ongoing myth-making and conspiracy theories. However, instead of despairing at the obvious parallels of the present, Baumbach limits the fake news to ballads and puppet shows. During a frenzied flight out of camp, he sends Jack on an uncontrollable run for a lost toy.

While act three still drags us into colder waters, Baumbach guides us through what looks familiar. A chemistry lab appears to belong to Bunsen and Beaker. One visit to A&P packages in maximum advertising language. And in an impressive blow, German legend Barbara Sukowa heads the German hospital where Jack (now with Babette) nears the end of the story. As Sister Hermann Marie, Sukowa carries the weight of past roles as she lectures on grief and magical thinking: philosopher Hannah Arendt, mystic Hildegard von Bingen, prostitutes and militants. The accompanying nuns push shopping carts, not stretchers, leaving the tragic to the mundane. In the closing dance sequence, Jack and Babette faced their worst fears and emerged as one. The town gains its obvious joy despite its trouble.

A family of two parents and four children screams inside the car.

Greta Gerwig as Babette, Dean Moore/Henry Moore as Wilder and Adam Driver as Jack from front left in “White Noise.”


a big movie The flaw for Cheadle, whose character is a welcome presence in the book, is the lack of screen time. While the film misses a number of minor characters and subplots, Murray’s omniscient fascination is a counterpoint to Jack’s increasingly brutal personal attention. As always, Cheadle steals every scene he’s in with his chops and charm. It’s a shame that Baumbach has given him so little space, reducing Murray’s complexity and using him mostly to further the plot.

DeLillo said in interviews that Robert Altman’s films have influenced his work, and some will note the Altman-style overlapping dialogue of the Gladney family. While Driver and Cheadle manage to absorb the more stylized speech of the novel in a way that feels somehow believable, this seems more bizarre to Gerwig—perhaps outside of the typical female-child repertoire, perhaps because she hasn’t been on camera for a while or because the role has fallen so far. Choosing Driver to be 10 years older with age makeup was a gamble, but it introduces an attractive vulnerability that no other actor might have. This makes it an excellent standard-bearer for the film’s candidly playful tone.

Now that we know what he’s up to, I’d like to see Baumbach adapt another offbeat modern classic: maybe “Oreo,” a crazy comic adventure set in Fran Ross’ own home. I would never have guessed that it was suitable for creative fiction, but I hope it’s just getting started now.

“White Noise”

in English and German with English subtitles

Vote: R for short violence and language

Operation time: 2 hours, 16 minutes

Play: On Netflix on December 30

Johnson’s work has been published in The Guardian, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Believer, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *