Is it true that filmmakers don’t successfully adapt novels into movies? Director Noah Baumbach’s White Noise disputes this notion. Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise resonates for us today. The film in its North American premiere currently screens at the 60th New York Film Festival in the Main Slate section.
A triumphant adaptation of DeLillo’s titular novel
Baumbach’s successful adaptation of Don DeLillo’s pivotal postmodern 1985 novel resonates. It strikes searing parallels with our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, in a press screening talkback after the film, Baumbach said that the pandemic had impacted his reworking of DeLillo’s novel.
Baumbach strikes fire with DeLillo’s satiric and pithy commentary on human socialization. He seamlessly weaves in themes about death, love and family connections. He presents salient truths against the alienation and divide brought by consumerism, materialism and corporatism.
Adhering to the novel’s setting, a suburban college town in the 1980s, Baumbach embraces the task of depicting a warm, prosaic, homely lifestyle. We find the Gladneys a pleasant and humorous family to watch, headed up by Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, the well-meaning mom and dad, who wrangle four wise children of varying ages. Baumbach gently eases us into the Gladney lifestyle clutter, verbal, material, interactional. Their ordinary household speaks of normalcy, of busy activity, of ordered chaos.
The characters in ‘White Noise’ spin out organically from fine performances
Driver’s superb performance as the middle-aged Jack Gladney resonates. His embodiment loads easily into a continuum of wide-ranging behaviors. Jack, a flamboyant “Hitler Studies” professor, obviously relishes his renown as a Hitler aficionado. In one of Baumbach’s incredibly laugh-out-loud scenes, we watch the “erudite” Jack (who doesn’t know German) waxing eloquently about Hitler and the idol worship and fandom he generated.
Baumbach casts Don Cheadle as Professor Siskind, Jack’s counterpart. In one session, the two team-teach. As Cheadle excitedly claims that Elvis‘ appeal as an idol echoes Hitler’s, Driver echoes him, but about Hitler’s mass appeal. Baumbach’s comedic pacing, intercutting Driver’s and Cheadle’s excited comments, brings down the house.
Driver smoothly transitions to every range of emotion as professor, dad and husband. He is measured, warmly paternal, scattered, calmly panicked, ferociously jealous and altogether glorious. Initially, Driver’s embodiment of Gladney’s sense of privilege, complacency and enjoyment of his children and wife Babette provide a “solid” foundation for Baumbach to tear down. The wrecking ball smashes after a series of increasingly uncontrollable external events. Only then does Baumbach expose Jack and Babette’s numb existence. Then as DeLillo does, Baumbach slices open the characters. Baumbach shows how human beings can evolve by helping each other cope with pain.
Greta Gerwig’s wonderfully drawn Babette
Gerwig’s Babette, remarkable in ’80s-style, big hair ringlets and frizz, initially appears staid, controlled and motherly. Importantly, Babette represents the perfect foil and helpmeet to Driver’s paternal, directed father and scholar. However, the initially sweet, reasonable wife and mom unravels. Her teen daughter tells Jack that a pill she’s seen Babette swallow causes her forgetfulness and confusion.
Though Babette denies that she takes medication, the elusive pill becomes a point of contention. When Baumbach reveals the source of her behavior change, Gerwig’s sensitive reaction to Driver’s off-the-charts rant explodes in counterpoint. Both actors find the rich, subterranean darkness that abides underneath their characters roiled by cataclysm.
The cataclysm proves fatal to their family “normalcy.” With excellent foreshadowing suggesting the horror to happen, Baumbach spools the shots of the train and truck as they head toward a collision. The inevitable explosion causes the toxic chemical cargo to billow clouds of hazardous waste into the atmosphere. The cinematography heightens this extraordinary devastation into the terrifying. That such airborne toxic events have happened in the U.S. and will continue to happen makes it all the more horrific.
The accountable parties attempt a cover-up, jeopardizing the Gladneys and others whom we’ve come to like. The toxic, unbreathable air permeates the environs and spreads in unknowable proportions. The uncertainty creates panic. The film powerfully reveals how the Gladneys and others evacuate, find shelter, and stare in amazement at the clouds of doom. Indeed, Baumbach’s rendition of this apocalyptic event proves more terrifying than zombie films. Partly this is because he employs special effects from the “less is more” school of thought. It works to an amazing degree.
White Noise balances comedy and horror
The film balances comedy and horror in a twilight zone of macabre consciousness. The characters’ obsession with death, which their distractions and entertainments can’t salve, reminds us to “momento mori.” The “toxic air event,” the inevitable result of a culture wild about profits, hits home as COVID-19 still lurks in unvaccinated corners. DeLillo’s popsicle philosophy about every nullifying cultural “ism” serves Baumbach’s writing and directing. The American obsession with death and inability to look at it realistically floats in air of the film like a toxic plume.
Finally, White Noise provides us with a prescient glimpse in time that reveals how we got here,. The hope is in looking inward to retrieve decency and love on the road to the unavoidable that we need not obsess about. After all, death is inevitable and no one escapes.
White Noise is one to see. Look for its release on Netflix, or for tickets see the New York Film Festival website.