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Returning to White Noise

By Saffron Forsberg


Illustration by Maia Hadler

The Grape published its first article on Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, tastefully titled “BREAKING NEWS!!!!!!!!” by former editor-in-chief Priya Banerjee (OC ‘22), on July 16th, 2021. It’s a sweet article to read now: one promising the milling about of “super beefy king of the screen” Adam Driver, the appearance of celebrity trailers, and the excitement of background

extras who are also friends and peers. The short article is goofily historic, in retrospect, when recalling that summer, and especially now that Baumbach’s White Noise (2022) sits streamable on Netflix. It was widely released on New Year's Eve. And though, in the film, Oberlin itself comes in and out of focus, the film acts as a strange snapshot of that Unprecedented Summer Semester.

But perhaps I’m biased in my sappiness. I am a member of a dying breed, after all; I was here that fateful summer ‘21 semester (sorry, “trimester”) Baumbach came to town, to our own College-on-the-Hill. And, like most people who were here, I feel a wave of vague nausea when recalling the sweaty, ravenous delirium that was our summer trimester. I suppose, to some, it was “Obie summer camp”...but I don’t think I ever felt that way. I remember, as the trimester drew to a close, sobering up, crying it out, and returning to my hometown to devour Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, as though its postmodern prose could provide any needed clarity. I, predictably, loved the classic novel, and understood why it had presented itself to Oberlin that summer, however incompatible its content was with the manic perfection of the big-budget Netflix production it promised. Because hey, the summer ‘21 trimester was utterly surreal, so maybe it was the perfect environment for an Airborne Toxic Event.

This is to say that my first watch-through of White Noise was one of shrieking and pointing. I never claimed to be above that; I didn’t grow up anywhere cute or interesting enough to warrant large cameras, boom-mics, Greta Gerwigs, or Adam Drivers, and it was almost unsettling to see the little Ohio town that, by now, I know like the back of my hand, in fuzzy faux-80s fluorescence. Beside me, on New Years, in our humble Texas living room, my mother surely marveled at the fact that she had raised a kid who had gone on to fondle a number of extras in a Baumbach film. Is this not the American Dream? To raise a child in an unfilmable place who is able to trot off to a filmable place to bump shoulders with filmable people? How wonderfully distracting! I needed to watch it again.

So, a month later, after all my initial amusement, I returned to White Noise to (attempt to) watch it as someone who hadn’t so thoroughly mythologized its production. I tried to wrap my head around the momentous, Spielbergian production, the soaring Danny Elfman soundtrack, the constant Stranger-Things-ian nods to every 80s blockbuster ever made, all while Driver and Gerwig and Cheadle clamored to retain Don DeLillo’s stilted and larger-than-life dialogue with all the religiosity of Shakespearian players. The film contains so many moving parts that it's hard to locate where one is even supposed to lay one's eyes from shot to shot.

Of course, the novel is somewhat this way. There’s a reason it's been called “unfilmable” and “unadaptable”, as though filmmakers shouldn’t dare even lock eyes with its content. 1985’s White Noise is cluttered and postmodern, addressing the garish veneer of the ‘80s American wasteland, the clinical insularity of academia, and the inescapability of one’s mortality, all through the eyes of a professor (Driver), his troubled wife (Gerwig), and their blended family. It is, at times, purposefully oblique. Which presents the question: how charitable should we, as an audience, be about films deemed “unadaptable”? Should we extend generosity to Baumbach for simply trying? For introducing a classic novel to a new generation of viewers (and readers) to whom it may now be especially relevant? Is Noah Baumbach brave for even attempting to translate DeLillo into something enjoyable to mainstream audiences, to those who have never read the novel and likely never will? Can such a film stand alone? And, perhaps an even tougher question: can it stand alongside its paperback counterpart?

It’s hard to say. The novel is dense, circuitous, and at times difficult to digest…but it also isn’t a big-budget Netflix enterprise. Postmodern novels do not promise what widely-released movies promise, and they do not attempt to win over every reader (or, rather viewer…consumer) who encounters them. They don’t necessarily entertain, and thus don’t often present themselves as two-and-a-half-hour odes to candy-colored Gen-X nostalgia. And, because of this, White Noise (2022) feels like Baumbach-gone-Disney, Baumbach-gone-Duffer-Brothers, and, unfortunately, makes DeLillo’s masterwork feel a bit that way, too. In all its bemusement at death-proof American capitalism, the film is eerily commercial.

DeLillo’s Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies, becomes a bewildered TV Dad under Driver’s care. Something about DeLillo’s Babette has been smoothed over and tamped down, as well. Is it just because, while watching the film, I have to pretend I’m not looking at Frances Ha in a vivacious wig? When Baumbach and Gerwig work together, a certain way of delivering lines emerges, even absent of the mumblecore spirit. It’s much of the director’s charm. But isn’t the essence of mumblecore (conceptually and aesthetically) its distance from the loud and mainstream? Baumbach’s style is strange and stilted when accompanied by a hearty Netflix budget, and like many such multi-million-dollar adaptations, White Noise comes across as though a team of executives assembled an equation for a Great Movie only for that equation to feel all too present in the final cut.

In the end, it’s easy to declare that Baumbach’s White Noise tried too hard. What else was it supposed to do? Adapting DeLillo requires effort, and the effort Baumbach put into his rendition of the novel is apparent. Indeed, it’s hard to parse exactly where the film went wrong. One could argue the budget too big, the aesthetics too jaunty and plastic – but is that not the aesthetic the novel presents? Like other 80s-era consumerist commentaries – a great example being David Byrne’s decadently campy True Stories (1986) – White Noise goes all in on the Reagan-era fluorescence. But, for some reason, it falls flat here. Perhaps I must assert what I hoped wasn’t true: White Noise should stay on the page. But thanks for stopping by, Mr. Baumbach.

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