Hard to believe this is the first time I’ve covered a Noah Baumbach picture on this blog. Then again, Baumbach is a central figure of the “mumblecore” movement, and I’m sure it wasn’t hard to find anything more interesting than a bunch of disaffected white people moan about their boring-ass first world problems.
And then there’s White Noise.
We lay our scene in a college town at some point in 1984, of all years. This is the story of Professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), who came to global acclaim as a foremost expert on the life and times of Adolf Hitler, even though he doesn’t speak a word of German. Jack is currently on his fourth wife (Babette, played by perennial Baumbach muse Greta Gerwig) who is herself on her fourth marriage with Jack.
Jack has two children from his previous marriages: Heinrich (Sam Nivola) is a teenage boy who seems to act and talk as if he’s already in the National Guard, while Steffie (May Nivola, Sam’s actual sister) is the kind of young girl who’s constantly spouting whatever non sequitur questions pop into her head. As for Babette, she brought over Denise (Raffey Cassidy), your typical moody teenager who’s coming into her own independence and pushing her parents harder than either one of them would like. Jack and Babette do have one child together: Wilder, a toddler alternately played by twins Henry and Dean Moore.
The film begins with a lecture from Professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), a colleague to Jack who’s primarily known for his expertise on the life and times of Elvis Presley. Indeed, the two get into some fascinating dialogues in which Elvis and Hitler are portrayed as two sides of the same coin, each one the kind of larger-than-life mythic figure that people rally around in times of uncertainty. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the film’s opening lecture, Murray delivers a monologue about car crashes, specifically car crashes and explosions in American cinema. The basic gist is that when such grandiose crashes happen in real life, there tends to be mangled bodies, burning rubber, thousands of dollars in property damage, city-wide traffic gridlock, and so on. But the magic of Hollywood allows us to ignore all that unpleasantness and focus on the pure innocent spectacle and the harmless fun of watching filmmakers try to one-up each other with every movie.
Later on, Murray and Jack are talking with their colleagues and somebody suggests that we need disasters. On some level, a disaster is a means of shaking things up and distracting from the mind-numbing tedium of the everyday status quo. But then the rest of the plot unfolds and the film suggests something that this particular egghead fails to consider: What happens when disasters become the status quo? What happens when everyday modern life becomes an unending series of ongoing catastrophes and potential threats?
The actual plot of the film is kicked off by a train crash that releases a massive
plume cloud payload of toxic chemicals into the air. What follows is an episode of city-wide panic as everyone struggles to keep up-to-date with how dangerous the event is, whether everyone should evacuate or shelter in place, the latest information directly contradicts what everyone thought they knew thirty seconds ago, people are still acting on obsolete rumors and misinformation, and so on.
All the while, everyone is looking to the government for answers. But while they’re struggling to keep everything under control like they’re supposed to do, the government workers prove to be so disorganized and incompetent that it leads people to wonder if the Powers That Be know more than they’re letting on and they’re acting in bad faith. To the contrary, as portrayed in the film, it’s more likely that the government workers are merely flawed and fallible human beings who don’t know any more or any better than anyone else.
Of course it’s easy to label the film as a COVID-era satire, but the film goes much deeper than that. Through huge stretches of runtime before and after the “Airborne Toxic Event”, the characters talk at great length about the purported dangers of artificial sweeteners, radiation from common household devices, Big Pharma playing with our neurochemistry, and so on. This isn’t just a satire about COVID, this is a satire about the greater trend of living in a modern society obsessed with knowing everything about the potential dangers of the world, even if the dangers are exaggerated and the knowledge is misleading.
Somebody wiser than I am once taught me that the difference between fear and panic is that fear can be rational. Fear can lead people to take sensible precautions against a legitimate and well-founded concern. Panic is inherently irrational. Panic leads people to flail around aimlessly in response to a perceived danger, desperately and mindlessly trying anything and everything to fix the problem even as they unwittingly make the problem worse. There is often a good reason to fear, but there is no such thing as a good reason to panic.
The filmmakers posit that a significant reason for all this panic and stress is in the fear of death. Not just of our own death, but fear that our loved ones might die and we’d have to find some way of carrying on without them. Given that everyone inevitably dies at some point, it’s a valid question as to when fear of death stops being rational and goes into pathological psychosis. To wit: Because of one character’s possible exposure to the Airborne Toxic Event for roughly two minutes, some clueless government bureaucrat shrugs his shoulder and gives a possible prognosis of death within seven years. And if that death hasn’t happened by seven years, at least they’ll know more about the effects and cures by that point.
Said main character hears all this and jumps straight to the conclusion that they will inevitably die. Within seven years at most. You tell me how rational that existential fear is.
But of course, the poet said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Appropriately, we do get a character so thoroughly paralyzed by the very fear of death that we watch as the character spirals into a psychotic break. It’s one thing for someone to go to unspeakable lengths simply to avoid death, this is a character who willfully commits acts of immoral desperation simply to avoid the fear of death. And there’s some black market pharmacist schlub who’s selling the snake oil that promises to make it happen. Fucking seriously.
Luckily, the film takes a slightly more optimistic tone by suggesting that we can make it through hard times and ease our anxieties by having faith in each other. Trouble is, the filmmakers neglect to point out that having misplaced faith in each other is exactly how people get duped by bad faith actors selling them disinformation. It wasn’t a bad theme, necessarily, just poorly handled.
Then the film ends on a significantly stronger note of optimism, suggesting that if we can do so much to create fear, we can do just as much to create hope. It’s all a matter of shaping the world we want to see, putting into life what we want to get out of it, and so on and so forth. It’s an anodyne message, sure, but a straightforward and certain ethos was more than welcome after all the head-spinning chaos of the two hours prior.
I must certainly give Noah Baumbach credit for going so far out of his comfort zone with White Noise. Indeed, there are definitely times when Baumbach visibly bit off more than he could chew with regards to presenting the train explosion and the epic scale of the story. Even so, the man is a master at writing and directing dialogue, which comes in handy with regards to the labyrinthine bureaucratic logic inherent in the absurdist social satire of the plot. Between Baumbach’s direction and steadfast performances from Driver and Gerwig, the film definitely gets its point across as a ruthless examination of modern life in a world with far more information than wisdom.
If you’re in the mood for some counter-programming, this one’s about as far from Avatar as you could hope to get. Check it out.