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Thread: WHITE NOISE (Noah Baumbach 2022) - NYFF

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    WHITE NOISE (Noah Baumbach 2022) - NYFF


    Baumbach goes big

    The obvious link of White Noise with Noah Baumbach's first film, The Squid and the Whale (NYFF 2005), is the pretentious academic father, and the questioning children. But in other ways this bold, risk-taking new venture is another big step forward, as Noah Baumbach's terrific last film, Marriage Story (NYFF 2019), also was. This is the writer-director's first adaptation, and it's of a famous novel by Don DeLillo from 1985, also his first movie made on such a grand scale and with such a big budget and with such wild comic absurdity. It could be a grandiose failure: White Noise has for forty years been considered unfilmable. Welll, he's done it, and while not all of it works, especially not the last part, it was worth it. And I'd advise you to get on Netflix and enjoy it.

    There are delights and complexities here never seen in a Noah Baumbach movie. This is the kind of picture you want to go back to. There's a lot going on and so much of it is rich and fun. The cynicism and satire and self-congratulatory cleverness of DeLillo's novel are all there - but with them a touching warm-heartedness and a caring about a family and a marriage we've never seen before in the director. Robbie Collin of the Daily Telegraph aptly describes White Noise as akin to "an early Steven Spielberg film having a nervous breakdown" and its frequent overlapping-dialogue passages have widely been linked to Robert Altman's style. But above all it's Don DeLillo, filtered, some think brilliantly, some think not enough, through the sensibility of Noah Baumbach.

    The story is hard to summarize. It's about a lot of stuff, from messy families to academic pretension to toxic waste and environmental degradation to - the big one - fear of death. Things revolve around a small college in Ohio where J.A.C. Gladney (Adam Driver, with a paunch), known as Jack, is a professor of Hitler Studies who can't speak German, but is nonetheless widely celebrated for his theories, which delve into power and fame and the oddities of personal development - that Hitler was a mamma's boy and studied art - and overlook the Holocaust. Jack lives with Babette (Greta Gerwig, curly-blonde mophead), aka Baba, who teaches physical therapy. They have four children (all excellent), three by previous marriages (both are on their fourth), one, little Wilder (Henry and Dean Moore), their own.

    Jack has several colleagues, the important one Murray Siskind (a droll Don Cheadle) is a professor who likes to talk about films of accidents and car crashes, and celebrates them as symbolic of American optimism. The satire of Eighties academic pretension flows freely. A whole lot else is going on in the thee-part division of the novel, first of all centering on the "airborne toxic event," then "Dylar," an experimental drug to ease fear of death (but with dire side-effects, like inability to distinguish words from things), then a crazy-fantastic finale with philosophical explorations that don't work but whose botched revenge-murder reminds me of Peter Sellers brilliant improvised finale for Kubrick's Lolita.. All through there is a return to a big supermarket as the place these consumer-crazed citizens take refuge in, with a glorious musical finale in the big A&P over the closing credits. The last section makes hilarious use of two excellent German actors, Barbara Sukowa as Sister Hermann Marie and Lars Eidinger as Mr. Gray.

    The CGI and crowd-wrangling and disaster-staging are all new and great fun for a director who dealt in intimacy and family relationships before this. The gigantic crash of a big rig tanker truck driven by a drunk and loaded with gasoline into a train carrying toxic chemicals is the central event you've got to stage big-time, and Bauambach does it very nicely indeed: the black cloud of the pricelessly entitled "airborne toxic event" is in fact gorgeous. So also in their way are the car lineups and Eighties actioner-style backup crashes into metal garbage cans, the station wagon floating down the river with the Gladneys in it, the public and private voices fumbling and reshuffling advice and cover stories, just like Covid, as has been widely commented. This is the time when Sam Nivola shines as son Heinrich, the adolescent's rationality setting off Jack's uselessness and denial.

    It's been a criticism of this precisely period mid-Eighties film that it's simply dated, and it's also been praised for getting the period just right, and achieving special relevance right now. It's all a bit true and who knows how this movie will age? It may be never better than right now. But it's also going to be fun in future watchings to w0rk out how the film's improvisations extrapolate and translate DeLillo's novel in movie form. It's enjoyable to see how - this comes in the Sam Nivola part - the satire on intellectual fakery indirectly celebrates intelligence. The last part isn't a success but the warmth and sympathy for this couple only grows. Baumbach strongly anchors DeLillo's picture of American's disquietude (their inability to find comfort or escape their mortality through their things and gadgets, in Driver's and Gerwig's humanness. This is a story/book that's mean and nasty and cynical but has a strong thread of love in it. It's this complexity that makes Baumbach's White Noise curiously endearing and memorable. The critical response has been mixed, reflected in a Metacritc rating of only 66%. But I can see why Mike D'Angelo in his "Year in Review" on Patreon makes this film his no. 5 of 10 but also mentions it as the "Outlier' and "Most Underrated," "the finest direction of Baumbach's career" and the movie he's currently most ready to go back to and resample.

    White Noise, 136 mins., premiered at Venice Aug. 31, 2022 and debuted in the US in the New York Film Festival as the Opening Night Film Sept. 30 and showed at a dozen other festivals including London, Tokyo, Miami and Lisbon. Limited US theatrical release Nov. 25. From Netflix, US streaming release Dec. 30. Screened for this review online Jan. 1, 2023. Metacritic rating: 66%. AlloCiné press rating 3.7 (74%).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-08-2023 at 06:58 PM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area


    Notes on Don DeLillo.

    I'm reading Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, which I never read before. I'm doing this because of how much I like the film (as I say in my review above); also because David Foster Wallace, whose 1996 Infinite Jest is one of my favorite books, greatly admired DeLillo. They corresponded. A handful of their letters to each other can be found online. Two are HERE. It's a PDF file so I can't copy and paste from it. See the Wikipedia article on DiLillo: he already had a strong cult status in 1985, when the publication of White Noise won him the National Book Award and widespread mainstream recognition thenceforth.

    We learn from the Web editor of The Paris Review that Wes Anderson took a course with David Foster Wallace at Emerson College in Boston - he was his favorite teacher, got his phone number, and called and asked DFW for advice on a paper he was writing about DeLillo's White Noise. But DFW left Emerson, and Anderson dropped out of college.

    DeLillo's use of language is simple ad beautiful, differing from the chattering brilliance of DFW, but Wallace, among other things, admired the poetry and beauty of some of DeLillo's descriptive phrases, like "snow that was drilled and gilded with dog piss." See in the letter what DeLillo says about the relation of clarity and beautiful language, the way "precision can be a kind of poetry."

    That kind of alliterative, poetic thing may be less present in White Noise the novel, certainly it is from the movie, however I don't feel the inimitability of the novel in the film the way I do in movies made from Jane Austen's novels. Baumbach's version of DeLillo can capture the staccato shocks of DeLillo's language in his book; Austen's books can be seen largely as wonderful static talk, linked by inimitably witty expository sentences. But DeLillo's book has scenes of action punctuating it that a camera can capture.

    Important passages of dialogue in the book are delivered almost verbatim in the movie. And this is good, especially since there are flourishes added in the movie, such as for instance putting Murray's remarks about car crashes as a celebration of American optimism in the form of an illustrated classroom lecture early on, instead of midway in a conversation. Baumbach's version visualizes the AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT in ways that magnificently extrapolate from the book's language, but with a beauty and restraint that may be one good reason why some writers are calling the movie "elegant." Baumbach doesn't go crazy "dramatizing" the book for the screen; he doesn't have to.

    I reckon it's always preferable to read a book first, then watch the movie version. But I'm getting that not reading any DeLillo was a mistake and I ought to try some more of his novels, they are so good, and he ranks so high. I had the impression his books were snarky and clever and "post-modern" in ways I wouldn't like, but as David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is passionate and deeply felt, I can see the novel White Noise is too. And we can get something from a novel that we cannot get from a film.

    In an interview DeLillo made some pretty profound statements about the uniqueness and importance of the novel form:
    It is the form that allows a writer the greatest opportunity to explore human experience... For that reason, reading a novel is potentially a significant act. Because there are so many varieties of human experience, so many kinds of interaction between humans, and so many ways of creating patterns in the novel that can't be created in a short story, a play, a poem or a movie. The novel, simply, offers more opportunities for a reader to understand the world better, including the world of artistic creation. That sounds pretty grand, but I think it's true.
    The PDF file cited above reproduces the two letters as they actually appeared. DeLillo did his writing on a manual typewriter. It's wonderful how he describes for Wallace the way in which this tool allows him to have a sense of carving and shaping sentences,"the sculptural quality I find in words on paper." "Electronic intervention would dull the sensuous gratification I get from this process..." He doesn't even want to use an electric typewriter. I have thought myself that writing on a computer complicates matters and is too easy, for a writer. As we gain, we lose. As we go faster, we lose focus. We are the tools of our tools, as Thoreau said, and the pen, and the manual typewriter, were unmatched tools for the shaping of language by a writer.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-05-2023 at 01:05 AM.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    On reading Don DeLillo's White Noise.

    When Jack comes to the sleazy Germantown motel to find "Mr. Gray," Baumbach gives us even the cryptic "little plastic letters" arranged on the office door:
    "Gibberish but high quality gibberish," Jack says to himself. There's just time to glimpse them. Watching on your computer/TV screen, you can freeze-frame to examine the words and try to figure them out. There is no discernible meaning. (Since this sequence in both book and film is so reminiscent of Humbert Humbert's encounter with Clare Quilty in Nabokov's Lolita, one may think of all the cryptic signs and verbal games playfully embedded in Nabokov's text recorded in Alfred Appel Jr.'s Annotated Lolita.) So far I haven't seen anybody commenting on this gibberish in the screen version except Mike D'Angelo on Letterbox'd-whose reviews I almost always recommend. Here he just ends with a reference:
    (Keeping NU MISH BOOT ZUP KO's just gonna confuse the shit out of people. But I suppose that was always the idea. - D'Angelo.)
    I'm happy that D'Angelo gives a 70/100 rating to the movie, which in his system is extraordinarily high. I've been influenced by his thinking the AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT is where Baumbach "peaks," but reading the book, I think it may peak there too.

    By the way, Lolita is "unfilmable" too, though there are two film versions of it.

    So, just as in the movie, the AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT is a climactic part of the book. This is when we see the local citizenry gathered and the mocking irony of its paradoxical SIMUVAC program, a group of volunteers using an actual disaster to prepare for a series of disaster-simulations, instead of the reverse. If his reproduction of NU MISH BOOT ZUP KO is any indication, Baumbach is almost worshipful in his fidelity to the text.

    The book has some doldrums, but also some brilliant moments when DeLillo is really flying. The man can write, no mistake. But as can happen it may be - I haven't yet read any of this other novels - that the book that brought him into the big time, while it may be one of the most accessible, may not be his best. (It was not one of David Foster Wallace's absolute favorites.) There is priceless dialogue, sometimes carried over verbatim, as noted, in the film. But one place the novel falls down a bit is in some of the lengthy dialogues between Jack and Babette and even more so between him and Murray. It seems too expository at times. At moments Murray doesn't seem very much like a real character so much as a dummy or alter ego to spell out Jack's, or Don's, ideas, and casting the book in the first person makes Jack an alter ego for the author. Baumbach wisely cuts down on these.

    For some reason I thought the warmth between Jack and Babette was an addition of the film, but it's pretty strong in the novel when Jack's lying in bed with his head between Babette's breasts all the time.
    I studied the palm-studded print of his loose shirt, the Budweiser pattern repeated on the surface of his Bermuda shorts. The shorts were too big. The eyes were half closed. The hair was long and spiky. He was sprawled in the attitude of a stranded air traveler, someone long since defeated by the stale waiting, the airport babble. I began to feel sorry for Babette. This had been her last hope for refuge and serenity, this weary pulse of a man, a common pusher now, spiky-haired, going mad in a dead motel.
    There is a nice sample of the writing, nothing fancy but something you can't do in a movie - except it is a good blueprint for a scene as well. We could quote many such.

    There is a memorable late sequence not in the film. It describes Wilder, the smallest boy, crossing the freeway oh his plastic tricycle.

    The final part about the supermarket changing the arrangement of things points to the effect on older people and is different from the song and dance at the end of the film. It turns into an aria that makes you want to cheer. I said (without knowing) that this is perhaps not DeLillo's best novel. But this final passage is an aria that makes me want to boy down and salute, and again say: this man knows how to write!

    The visit to the German hospital manned by nuns and the long philosophical dialogue is remarkable too (funnily, the lingo of Sister Herman Marie made me feel like it was translated from the Yiddish), and this is really great - but a lot of it is reproduced (and reduced) brilliantly in the film.

    White Noise is a terrific book. It's easy to see why Baumbach would want to dedicate a lot of his $100 to realizing it for the screen. Thanks, Netflix! Reading the novel makes me want to watch the film again.


    By the way, I remember now ten years ago I did read a novel by Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis, just before going to see the David Cronenberg film starring Robert Pattinson: and found that was a very precise and accurate adaptation.

    Above: Classic Radio Flyer, 10" Little Red Tricycle.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-07-2023 at 01:36 AM.


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