All Lost in the Supermarket: Noah Baumbach’s ‘White Noise’

In 2004, the eccentric crypto-klezmer group One Ring Zero recorded an album, As Smart As We Are, in which they invited fiction authors and poets to write lyrics for songs that the band would then spin into music with melody and arrangements on theremin, accordion, and piano.  Among these was “Blessing,” written by the late great novelist Denis Johnson.  One chorus goes:

Bless, please, the people in art galleries
Lonely as a distant train
Bless, now, the cancer of the bone
The last light making beautiful
The poisons in the sky

The next verse speaks of:

The condemned man in his tuxedo dream — his dream of limousines and innocence. Take off your clothes and come to him in dreams; stand on the fire escape naked and blessed, with jazz like a rivulet of codeine, the laughter spilling from our broken necklaces

Think of it. The juxtaposition between the carcinogens pervading the air, making the Los Angeles skyline at sunset rich in pinks and purples, and then the man on death row, who finds it impossible to CTRL-Z the criminal acts he’s done, yet still can experience a fleeting dream of freedom and sex.

I couldn’t stop thinking of this song while watching Noel Baumbach’s adaptation of the classic 1985 Don Delillo novel White Noise.  Though there is much to like and dislike in this film, the sense of one’s existential haplessness in the face of the environmental wrongs done to us and the ethical wrongs we do to ourselves and the ones we love rang through.

But first, that rivulet of codeine.  About a third of the way into the film, we see streams of toxic waste slither down stupidly on the side of a wrecked train car – in the key disastrous event of the narrative – and I thought of how the agents of our fate can at once seem sinister and purposeful but also inevitable and unthinking. Due to an idiotic series of events, our lives can be changed in ways that are unexpectable and impossible to predict, which is at least part of what White Noise is about.

Broadly speaking, both the book and the film concern a professor, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), at a small college who started a Hitler Studies program there, along with his family and colleagues as they face a mysterious environmental catastrophe.  The main plot points and even some of the text from the novel remain in the film, for better or worse. 

I remember reading White Noise twenty years ago and wondering what it would be like as a movie, as we so often do in imagining a piece of fiction as a film in the mind.  Miraculously, both Gladney’s wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) and his son Heinrich (Sam Nivola) look very close to what I pictured, though making Gerwig wear an 80s perm and Mom Jeans feels like a crime against humanity.  I assumed that Baumach would tell the story in a contemporary context, but putting it in the original milieu of the 1980s serves several purposes.  For one, there is Babette’s predicament as a woman at the time torn by the pressures of dieting and aerobics, mothering and wifely perfection, not to mention the then-rudimentary state of psychiatric treatment for depression. Meanwhile, anxieties of the time about nukes and environmental pollution are propel the narrative. Yet there are other ways that the film makes nods big and small to 2022 in terms of COVID, Qanon, and right-wing extremism.

At times the film works as a parody of academia, much as the original novel did.  Professors sit around and bloviate, and sometimes stroll around a lecture hall and bloviate, as great thinkers.  One of the funniest things about the book is that Gladney built his starry academic reputation around being the Hitler Studies guy without ever learning German.  This major plot point gets reduced to two or three beats in the film, which never really gets around to conveying to viewers why his shortcoming (or hypocrisy) in this way is significant.  I don’t know if it would’ve been better to leave elaborate on it more this issue or leave it out of the story altogether, but the movie’s ambivalence reserves a lot of room for Driver’s character to come across as more sympathetic than protagonist.

There are some terrifically visualized set-pieces in White Noise – notably when the train-wreck that causes the disaster first happens, and then when the demonic cloud of toxic smoke thunders above the community that is attempting to evacuate.  But these do not necessarily offset the lack of character development nor chemistry among Gladney and his family and colleagues. 

Baumbach struggles to balance moments of a heartwarming 80s-style Goonies movie against the inherent dread of the subject matter.  It feels awkward as it shifts from family film to existential horror to humor like a car stalling at each change of attitude.  It tries to be both Spielbergian and Cronenbergian and hits a wall.  The final sequence struck me as so tonally jarring that it was untrue to both the spirit of the novel and the film’s own narrative. 

There are some very funny moments, as when Don Cheadle’s professor character pontificates at an A&P grocery store about Tibetan ideas of the transitional period between death and rebirth and then reveals that one of their colleagues just died: “I found out about an hour ago and came right here” – i.e., to the A&P.  Presumably there is a critique of consumerism buried in here, but the film never finds it.

I confess there is something I’ve always found reassuring about supermarkets.  There is so much essential to human survival there, it’s bright and colorful, and it conveys the sense that it will always be there.  As in Nixon and Khrushchev’s famous “Kitchen Debate,” it is a powerful ideological signifier. The American grocery store stands athwart the onward march of sickness and famine.  But Baumbach seems to be trying to say that we look for comfort in each other in the shopping aisles, in the face of death.  Gladney pompously lectures undergrads that what Hitler’s followers were looking for in their mass rallies was a way to create a community that draws a border around itself and places the prospect of death and suffering on the outside of the group.  Yet Baumbach does not persuade the viewer that other people could be the hearth or haven in a heartless world.  What I took from the original book is an unrelenting sense of irremediable loneliness in the face of the same.  Noah Baumbach’s White Noise unconvincingly tries to show that we look for solace at the supermarket, and adds a cheerful dance scene to prove my point.