Classic postmodern novels seem to be hard to capture on screen, perhaps because they’re often so suffused with cinema that they’ve already absorbed all possible adaptations. So it was with Thomas Pynchon, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and so it is with Noah Baumbach’s White Noise. This is arguably a more ambitious project than Anderson’s, since while Pynchon’s prose style feels more inimitable than Don DeLillo’s, Inherent Vice was late work, released only a short time before Anderson’s adaptation. Inherent Vice was also a period piece about the 70s, meaning it was also a novel, at some level, about the 00s, whereas White Noise was both written in the 80s, and widely considered to be DeLillo’s crowning achievement. Unlike Inherent Vice, then, White Noise is suffused with a sense of its own futility and finitude from the outset. Like the original novel, it revolves around a Midwestern family who are all, in one way or another, driven by their fear of death. The film, too, is driven by the fear that all narratives have died, or been exhausted, as one character after another notes that “all plots move deathwards” and that we are all “moving towards non-existence.”
The result is a strangely self-defeating work that is propelled by Baumbach’s failure – and his admission of his failure – to adapt DeLillo’s novel. To a large extent, this impoverishes the source material, making for a humourless rendition of quite a funny novel, and turning a rich tapestry of characters into a fairly one-dimension and linear narrative. This is all haunted by a sense of belatedness, by the suspicion that this adaptation should have been made in the 80s or not at all, partly because DeLillo’s prose style exudes such a quirky sense of its own contemporaneity, and its utter inextricability from the media of mid-80s, that turns oddly flat when rendered as a period piece. On top of that, White Noise often feels like it’s on autopilot, with Adam Driver going through the motions as the family patriarch, and Greta Gerwig offering another fairly bland muse role for Baumbach as the family matriarch. From a distance, this could be a slightly different inflection of Marriage Story, which also, in its own way, moved deathwards. Yet for all those issues, and despite the extreme tedium of the screenplay (or perhaps because of it), White Noise is interesting as a sustained and deliberate failure, true in that very specific sense to the bathetic fatalism of DeLillo’s novel and vision.
We see this fidelity, first and foremost, in Baumbach’s project of trying to capture the rhythm of DeLillo’s prose style. Much of the film is comprised of long scenes that are all about rhythm, typically involving many overlapping conversations and tableaux across which the camera pans back and forth. This flow, fluidity and white noise is the foundation of the film, and inspires the most liquid camera work in Baumbach’s career, while most of the key scenes involve discussions of fluid dynamics as well, whether it’s the nature of the airborne toxic event that sets the family crisis in motion (is it a plume or a cloud?), or a sustained scene in which the family car drifts down a placid river, ricocheting off rock after rock in slow motion. This fluidity evokes a new media ether, a heightened sense of connectivity, a digital white noise on the distant horizon that makes the airborne event pale in comparison: “Forget toxic clouds – it’s all the electrical and magnetic radiation.” It’s the same ambience that, ten years later, Julianne Moore’s housewife will find so oppressive and noxious in Todd Haynes’ Safe.
As in the novel, this new flow is intimately bound up with technology. Most of the film involves car travel in some form or other, starting with the procession of Volkswagens that marks the start of each semester at the College on the Hill, where Jack Gladwell, Driver’s character, works as an academic. The airborne toxic event stems from the collision between a truck and a train, and leads to a second act that plays as an extended traffic jam, as the Gladwells experiment with different ways of dodging and weaving around the endless line of cars out of town, culminating with their own Volkswagen floating down the river I mentioned above. Finally, they observe that “everything’s a car,” and that all parts of their world partake of a new media flow that can only be approximated by car travel. To deal with this “incessant flow of information,” the Gladwells turn to televised catastrophes, or what J.G. Ballard described as “atrocity exhibitions,” revelling in lurid spectacles that provide a brief beat of convergence amidst the constant media stream. They also normalise and domesticate this strategy, insisting that it’s “universal to be fascinated by TV disasters,” and so cementing high postmodernism in terms of what Mark Seltzer described as wound culture – an attraction to hypermediated horror as a way of articulating the visceral impact of hypermediation itself. Much of this horror comes from California, evoking an incipient informational apocalypse, a spreading West Coast catastrophe of which the airborne toxic event is merely the first stage.
However, the great irony of White Noise is that, for all this fluidity, the film is remarkably inert. Baumbach retains DeLillo’s titles, and huge portions of his prose, making it feel like the characters are simply talking in chunks from the book. DeLillo has a hyperreal style, and revels in characters over-explaining and over-enunciating events, as if to evoke language itself turning into a fungible and reified commodity, but this translates awkwardly onto the big screen, at least thirty years later, and often gives the impression that we are simply watching a two and a half lecture, or a fragmented audiobook with occasional illustrations. Once again, though, this inert fluidity, or fluid inertia, is strangely true to the rhythm of DeLillo’s prose too – specifically, its effort to wrest solidity from a new media ambience without congealing in the process. For that reason, Baumbach’s script is strongest when it utterly divests language of meaning, and turns film language into pure flow, whether in the empty academic utterances of Jack and his colleagues, or in the bland, increasingly meaningless platitudes that the Gladwells use to reassure their children when the airborne toxic event reaches its zenith.
More generally, White Noise is perhaps most evocative when it acknowledges its own incapacity to capture DeLillo’s flow, or identifies with DeLillo’s own thwarted flow, by focusing on those moments when the characters fail to monitor or manage flow as well. Much of this revolves around the film’s artfully placed period products, which reframe this quandary in terms of commodities – how do you navigate the white noise of endless consumer products without becoming a slave to any one of them? When they’re not delivering empty platitudes, the Gladwells tend to explain life to their children by way of the specific commodities that they have used to contour this flow. Babette, Gerwig’s character, explains to her daughter that “my life is either/or – either I chew regular gum, or sugar-free gum,” but doesn’t have an answer prepared when her daughter asks why she even chews gum in the first place. Alongside their consumerism, the Gladwells try to curb the media flow by invoking great men of the past, and yet this very process turns these giants into commodities. At the College on the Hill, Jack specialises in Hitler Studies, while his colleague Murray Suskind, played by Don Cheadle, takes Elvis Studies. Both Hitler and Elvis become consumer objects to be milked for funding, while Jack’s central monologue of the film, in which he attempts to fuse Hitler and Elvis’ legacies into a supreme flow of consciousness, a drowning-out of any residual white noise, is intercut with the train-car crash that sets the airborne flow of toxicity into motion.
Since it depends on thwarted flow, and fluid inertia, White Noise can’t exactly end so much as crystallise its own contorted relation to itself – and this produces the strongest sequence. After Jack concedes that his life, like the film, can only unfold in a “meantime” in which “we wait together,” Baumbach rolls the credits over an almost-dance sequence that plays to “New Body Rhumba,” an original LCD Soundsystem composition. This takes place in a supermarket, and splits the difference between the regulated flow of shopping and a full-blown dance number, as the liquid camerawork of the film expands into the most flamboyant pans of Baumbach’s career – across the aisles and then back and forth in front of an advertising wall. Even as James Murphy’s music picks up speed, and we retreat to a wide shot of the entire supermarket, this never quite becomes a dance – or never quite loses the stiltedness of the first few seconds in which you step into a dance, or start a dance. And that tentative space between stasis and flow, white noise and enunciation, moving and dancing, is the space of White Noise as a whole – a concession that Baumbach can’t figure out how to adapt DeLillo’s language, a gesture of defeat that is strangely true to the supreme strangeness of the novel.