Friday, January 20, 2023

Tuning in to the White Noise

My online dictionary explains the phrase “white noise” as “a steady, unvarying, unobtrusive sound, [such] as an electronically produced drone or the sound of rain, used to mask or obliterate unwanted sounds.”  White Noise is also the name of a new Netflix film by Noah Baumbach, based on a 1985 Dom DeLillo novel. The talented Baumbach, known as the writer/director of such quirky but highly emotional films as 2006’s The Squid and the Whale and 2019’s Marriage Story, here works at capturing DeLillo’s  darkly comic sensibility, the better to convey the absurdity of everyday life.

 It’s not often that what sticks in your mind at the end of a film is the footage under the closing credits. Though White Noise, in re-creating 1980s suburbia, frequently sets scenes in the aisles of the gleaming local supermarket, I wouldn’t have guessed that this is where we would end up at the final fadeout. After all, the story has big things on its mind, like academic rivalries, an “airborne toxic event” leading to mass evacuations, covert drug use, betrayal, and even attempted murder. But when push comes to shove, everyone has to eat, right? And—as the credits roll—the well-behaved shoppers at the local A&P (product placement is rife in White Noise) suddenly begin to dance, lofting rolls of toilet paper, exuberantly tossing plastic bags in the air, engaging a fellow  cart-pusher in an exuberant pas de deux in the produce aisle.  

 The first thing you notice as the film begins is the clamor and the clatter of everyday speech, which permeates the household of Jack Gidney. He’s played by Baumbach stalwart Adam Driver,  who is here dressed and made up to look as paunchy and unattractively middle-aged as possible. Baumbach doesn’t play favorites; his longtime partner, Greta Gerwig, takes the role of Jack’s wife, and she too is shot to look frazzled and angst-ridden. Part of the tension stems from their complicated family life: Jack has been married four times, and the four kids who help make up the teeming household are generally at odds, partly because although each of them comes from a different relationship, they are all expected to meld into a convivial family unit. And so they do—at times, such as when that mysterious toxic event forces them out into the potentially lethal  countryside.

 Meanwhile, Jack is troubled by his wife’s mysterious behavior, and even by his own career choices. As the world’s leading authority on Hitler Studies, he’s trying not to own up the fact that he knows no German. And then there’s Murray, his campus frenemy (Don Cheadle), who envies Jack’s fame and would like to be receiving similar recognition for his own Elvis Studies expertise. Will Jack’s dramatic appearance in front of Murray’s students help lift Murray’s campus prestige?  Or will it destroy any ties of friendship between two ambitious iconoclasts? Do we care? Maybe not, but Baumbach’s overall aim is to point up the ridiculousness of their goals.

 If you like tightly-structured films that head inexorably in one direction, building at last to a powerful conclusion, White Noise is not for you. This film meanders from place to place, ricocheting between ideas and styles. Some critics have applauded; others have not been charmed. I like a comment from David Ehrlich of IndieWire  who called the results of Baumbach’s work here “equal parts inspired and exasperating.”  Personally, I miss both the sweetness and the character complexity of Marriage Story. But White Noise is provocative and definitely not dull. And it has made me look at my local supermarket in an entirely new way.







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