I’ve Seen This Before: On Noah Baumbach’s film of Don DeLillo’s White Noise

Over the last few months, I’ve marvelled at members of a Don DeLillo subreddit practically cowering in fear of Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of the author’s US National Book Award-winning White Noise (1984), as if its impending release were itself a black billowing cloud—an entity central to the original book. Many users were still smarting from their disappointment at Cronenberg’s 2012 adaptation of DeLillo’s Joyceian epic Cosmopolis (2003). Fans seemed pre-haunted by a plume of anxiety over whether Netflix, a streaming service—a phrase that has taken on, not without good reason, the basic waveshape of an epithet—could possibly do the original text justice. They needn’t have worried. Baumbach’s transliteration is faithfully DeLillean, albeit in a way many (overly) serious DeLillo fans might not necessarily appreciate.

I caught the film at my local independent cinema during prime cinema-going hours on a Saturday night, and was the only soul in the theatre. This may not be a good sign for the box office take but the vaguely creepy experience of sitting alone in a dark room certainly gave the film as an object in itself a distinctly DeLillean air, and put me variously in the mindset of Players (1977) bomb-keen protagonist Lyle Wynant watching matinees on his lonesome, and of the unnamed narrator observing a slow-motion projection of Hitchcock’s Psycho in Point Omega (2010). It turns out that solo film-watching, ruminating, note-taking in a dark cinema, is an inherently DeLillean activity.

Reviews in the aggregate have been marginally positive (Metacritic 66 per cent, Rotten Tomatoes 63 per cent), if not effusive. In perhaps the most scathing review, critic Nadine Whitney, writing in FilmInk, paraphrases Macbeth: ‘In a supreme application of irony White Noise ends up being all sound and fury, signifying nothing’. Her argument suggests that the source text is irrelevant to contemporary audiences, that the film is ‘overlong and messy’, and that its script is ‘too obvious or oblivious’.

On RogerEbert.com, Brian Telleric, in a three-star review, writes that ‘one wouldn’t necessarily consider [DeLillo and Baumbach] a match’. But it should be clear to anyone familiar with White Noise, and DeLillo’s work more broadly, that the persistent echo of DeLillo’s preternaturally clever but nonetheless gormless family unit trading sharp, quasi-philosophical dialogue in the hyper-dramatic envelope of the domestic sphere is evidence that Baumbach and his team know the text (and DeLillo’s work generally) inside–out. They have spent serious time with it, and perhaps most importantly, get its jokes.

White Noise’s reputation as a ‘serious book’ threatens to overshadow its place in DeLillo’s corpus as one of his funniest books, second only to Amazons (1980), which also features an appearance by clown-philosopher Murray Jay Siskind. In the film, Siskind is played ably, if a little straighter and more refined than in the source material, by Don Cheadle. Death, or more accurately fear of death, is at both the book and film’s core, exaggerating the dramatic dimensions of a fundamentally ridiculous cast of characters: la commedia DeLillo. It’s not uncommon online, or even in print, to see fans quoting the mock-profundity of DeLillo’s characters as if their statements contained actual pearls of wisdom, often ascribing them to the author rather than the character. This is to deeply misunderstand the separation between a writer and their work. For example, when our protagonist Jack Gladney says, ‘All plots move deathwards’, this should not be read, as it most often is, as a self-aware character commenting metatextually on the thrust of his own narrative arc, or as DeLillo’s own wisdom. Rather, it should be read in its narrative context as the relatively meaningless rhetorical flourish of a Hitler scholar invoking capital-D Death in an unconscious display of his own desire to become the Überführer of his academic domain. And again, this is what Baumbach’s adaptation is good at: getting the jokes, being in on them, and bringing them to the surface in fresh ways. In the film, Adam Driver as Jack Gladney winds up perched on a ledge in a lecture theatre, glowering like an ominous raven, flapping and ranting in his academic garb—a new and frankly hilarious image that perfectly captures the character’s embodiment of a Gothic Hitlerian aesthetic in order to command the awe he pathetically craves.

When I first read White Noise as an undergraduate in the early 2000s, the academic consensus was that it was a novel of ideas, as distinct from a more traditional novel. After decades in ‘development hell’, it gained a reputation for being ‘unfilmable’, despite being inherently cinematic: the book is even divided helpfully into three acts. In a very DeLillean way, the novel has acquired the aura of an artwork that extends beyond its frame—ways of thinking about the work have come to precede the work itself. Much of the enjoyment in Baumbach’s film as a film for those who have read the book relies upon the appreciation of it as a supposedly impossible adaptation.

DeLillo’s own reputation has achieved the writerly equivalent of an actor being branded ‘difficult’, and his writing is generally regarded as dense, deep, heavy, hard-going—akin to reading Marx on Feuerbach from a standing start. This is not only untrue and unfair but smacks of a concerted effort by critics to obscure a body of work that immanently challenges the status quo. Baumbach’s adaptation, one degree and forty years removed, may not have the cut-through or currency to challenge the prevailing status quo, but it certainly has the potential to disrupt the false consensus that DeLillo is ultimately impenetrable, that he occupies the exclusive domain of solitary men taking refuge from the endless streams of information bombarding them via waves and radiation. By way of translation, Baumbach adopts the very medium of image-stream and manner of bombardment DeLillo writes about, which if nothing else should demonstrate that DeLillo is in many ways a straightforward realist of the cinematic condition, an author whose work has as much surface as depth, and one who need not be feared.

The film opens with a show-reel of cinematic car crashes cut together and VO’d by Cheadle’s Murray Jay Siskind, visiting scholar in the field. The celluloid car crash, he says, is a symbol of American optimism—with every film the car flies higher, the fireball reaches further into the sky, the wreckage claims more territory in the visual field. Again, DeLillo isn’t saying what Siskind is. He’s showing us how ridiculous Siskind’s commentary is. In the second act, the Gladney family flees in their station wagon from the looming threat of an ‘airborne toxic event’. While in the book the family witnesses a car crash that hardly rates a mention—‘One of the cars had skidded off the incline and barrelled into a vehicle in our lane’—in the cinema this is an opportunity for Baumbach to realise Murray’s theory on the screen, and he doesn’t disappoint. The car launches, and turns in x-frames per second while sparks shower from screeching metal. This is Siskind’s symbol of American optimism in HD, and an example of how Baumbach embraces opportunities to extend DeLillo’s themes in translation.

A sense of déjà vu pervades the source text as a symptom of exposure to Nyodene-D, the chemical component raining its death-affirming microparticles on the people of Blacksmith and surrounds via the aforementioned billowing black cloud. With connected whispers of non-diegetic dialogue woven through the second act’s disaster sequence, Baumbach’s film creates a system of reverse echoes that seem to pre-empt moments of spoken revelation and exposition in the scenes that follow, leaving the viewer with an uneasy feeling of having heard it all before. When a self-elected madman rises from the masses huddled in a karate dojo to rant and rave about the town’s evacuees being passed over by the national news, he trails off into an episode of déjà vu, saying ‘I’ve seen this before’. Some of us, having read the book, know how he feels—and in a sense we’ve all been here before, quite recently, huddling in our homes through floods, firestorms and pandemics, immersed in the hyper-saturated world of disaster gossip and misinformation, cowering from the various airborne toxic events of our lifetimes, glued to the nightly news to see if we can’t see ourselves looking back.

For the burghers of East Palestine, Ohio, where a trainload of chemicals recently exploded and unleashed a real-life airborne toxic event, the sense of déjà vu could not have been more palpable. Baumbach’s adaptation filmed nearby in 2021, and many locals who were evacuated from the real-life event were living through it for a second time, having volunteered as extras in the film.

One of the difficulties confronting the director of any adaptation is the gulf that exists between the constantly shapeshifting avatars that live inside different readers’ heads and the characterisations realised on-screen. Casting for the roles of known characters is no small feat. When Robert Pattinson, fresh from the Twilight franchise, was cast as Eric Packer in Cronenberg’s adaptation of Cosmopolis, it was too much for some DeLillo fans, despite Pattinson being utterly believable as a disconnected, narcissistic billionaire hell-bent on his suicide mission for a haircut. Fans couldn’t seem to get past the ignominious, low-brow literary associations that followed Pattinson into the frame.

Baumbach’s source material in the novel had a larger cast of characters; no single actor or character had to carry this film on their own. Greta Gerwig’s Babette Gladney starts out a little wooden, but her embodiment of the character culminates in a heartbreaking two-hander at the close of the second act, accounting for much of the gravity that sustains the rest of the film’s momentum. Adam Driver is both brilliant and brilliantly ‘not’ as the terminally insecure Chairman of Hitler Studies, and his Jack Gladney operates at two speeds as both highly intellectual and totally impractical, often utterly lost at sea. The children of Babette and Jack’s blended family account for much of the titular white noise, their heads buried constantly in frequencies and beams, coming up only to regurgitate half-overheard units of World Book data and working as a team to smooth them into gleaming jewels of misinformation. That I felt immersed—at times hemmed in—by the familiar, constant exchange of barbs and unsubstantiated factoids is a credit to the children cast in these roles.

As for Jack’s colleagues, Don Cheadle is less sleazy than the Murray Jay Siskind we meet in the book, and much less sleazy than the Siskind we meet in Amazons, but the tenor of his seriously silly meditations on the energy transfer of visual information in the supermarket environment is spot on. The members of College-on-the-Hill’s pop culture department, André 3000 as Lasher among them, are suitably obnoxious, and Jodie Turner Smith is ethereal as neuro-chemist Winnie Richards.

The character most wanting of a third dimension is Mr Gray, described in the book as ‘a compound man’. In the film he represents a composite of multiple shadowy figures involved in the development of the top-secret experimental drug Dylar, designed to treat the symptoms of the condition ‘fear of death’, for which Babette Gladney has been a willing guinea-pig. After the program is disbanded Babette continues seeing Mr Gray, his multiple parts eventually collapsing into the singular identity ‘Willie Mink’. They meet at a motel on the outskirts of Germantown, where Babette dons a ski mask to exchange ‘voluptuous American sex’ for vials of what might be a placebo if not for the fact that its side effects are observably real. In the book, Willie Mink/Mr Gray remains fundamentally unresolved across multiple dimensions, even when Jack meets him eye to eye down the barrel of a gun in a sleazy motel room with its ceiling-mounted television and noisy carpet. DeLillo’s physical description of the novel’s chief antagonist isn’t much longer than this sentence, which raises the interesting question of how exactly a director casts the fuzzy outline of the DeLillean ‘man in a room’? Lars Eidinger’s performance as Mink, a drug-addled husk of a man parroting TV catchphrases and cowering in fear at the violent connotations of spoken words, is so unsettling as to catapult the character into the haunted pantheon of DeLillo villains, alongside The Body Artist’s (2001) similarly unresolved mimic Mr Tuttle and the arch-archetypal ‘man in a room’, Benno Levin from Cosmopolis, played by Paul Giamatti in the Cronenberg adaptation.

Across his fifty-year oeuvre, DeLillo persistently explores the aesthetic dimensions of various artworks, both real and imagined. His characters are confronted constantly with the auras and ideologemes of art and artefact. In White Noise—both book and film—the barrage comes in the form of bright, association-laden supermarket brands. These are elevated to the level of high art (though not necessarily analysed as such) by Jack’s colleagues at the College-on-the-Hill, a loose cadre of pop-culture connoisseurs who are more interested in highbrow modes of consumption than any critical reckoning. Here DeLillo is asking: if art is routinely commodified, can routine commodities be received as art? It’s the same question Andy Warhol asked with his two-dimensional soup cans, but the novel and film of White Noise are perhaps more multidimensional mediums in which to explore it.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this obsession with aesthetic exchange is experienced by the protagonist of DeLillo’s short story ‘Baader Meinhof’ (2002), whose life and home are violently invaded by a personification of the aesthetic dimensions reaching ominously out of Gerhardt Richter’s series of titular paintings. Or the two students following an old man around town and reading him like a book via a series of breadcrumb-like literary associations in ‘Midnight in Dostoyevsky’(2009). The aura of the artwork as a site of ideological exchange is a familiar preoccupation of the Frankfurt School thinkers, although DeLillo’s consistent treatment of this apparatus as a narrative device extends the reach of the artwork’s aura into a fictional real world, which is what leads me to claim that his work sets parameters through which a sophisticated vision of ideological realism is projected.

The recurrence of this interface between the individual and resonances of the uncanny in late capitalist reproduction in DeLillo’s work is something that Baumbach obviously ‘gets’. And so must his production designer, long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Jess Gonchon, because in this adaptation it’s almost as if the sets are decorated with shredded-in-the-dead-of-night strips of pure DeLillean material. The walls of the Gladney home are crowded with what Walter Benjamin would call ‘work(s) of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’—mass-produced prints of famous paintings that pose a critical question about the nature of aura and exchange. In one stunning transition, a slow pan across the aisles of the information-rich A&P Mart, the Gladney family’s spiritual landscape, reveals the entire set to be a close photographic replica of Andreas Gursky’s iconic 1999 panoramic work ‘99 cent’.

What does it mean that the Gladneys are framed inside an image that lives rent-free in millions of discrete human minds? What does it mean that the Gladneys live inside a mock-cathedral replete with stained glass windows and framed counterfeits of priceless art? And what does it mean that when Jack Gladney attacks a bag of compacted trash, signalling a pivot towards the denouement, the picture frames hanging in the shed are all empty? These are DeLillean questions Baumbach has us asking ourselves, and they extend the source text beyond its own frame, connecting it to the thrust of its author’s broader canon—a DeLillean power move if ever there was one.

In the cinema, as the film unspools towards its teleological endpoint, this is the question I’m asking myself, facing off against the silver screen: what has been exchanged, and what if anything has changed as a result? What has the adaptation done to the source material’s material reach? I can’t help wondering if it’s even really possible to be the only person in the cinema, in any cinema. If there isn’t always someone else who has seen it all before, someone grey and unresolved standing quietly among one or other of the open curtain’s velvet folds, breathing there as if through a veil, waiting for the credits to roll. No wonder Baumbach closes with a dance number. After all, it’s a comedy.

James Bond and Metaphysics: A Conceptual Review of ‘No Time to Die’

Paul Tyson, 27 Jan 2022

Could it be that reductive instrumental power and merely animal defined needs and desires are just as hollow in our reactive and posturing politics, our bullshit jobs and our consumer lives as they were ultimately found to be by this fantasy hero of a now fading era?

About the author

Mitchell Welch

Mitchell Welch is a writer and freelance communications consultant currently living on the Gold Coast. He is a former Australian Prime Ministers Centre scholar who has published poems, essays and short stories in a range of journals and anthologies including Antipodes, Arena Magazine, The Australian Poetry Journal, The Best of Australian Poems, Cordite, Meanjin, Overland, Rabbit, Short Fiction Journal, Southerly and Text.

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