“As Baumbach satirises consumer culture, he in turn finds dignified meaning to the lives of Delilo’s terrified counterparts”
The notes I made during Noah Baumbach’s screen talk following his new film’s premiere at the London Film Festival range from abstract at best to unintelligible at worst. Sitting across from my favourite director of modern times, who casually reminisced about writing screenplays in an Italian New York restaurant with Wes Anderson, was almost too much for my brimming inner child to handle. Baumbach spoke of “stories we want to believe about ourselves,” immediately evoking my recollection of his and Anderson’s co-written pictures. Their characterisation of Bill Murray’s vulnerable and chaotically played Steve Zissou, who just wants to be a hero admired for revenge killing an elusive jaguar shark, or their adaptation of Roald Dahl’s wittiest character, who perfectly summates this sentiment in his own movie: “I think I have this thing where I need everybody to think I’m the greatest, the quote-unquote Fantastic Mr Fox. And if people aren’t knocked out and dazzled and slightly intimidated by me, I don’t feel good about myself.” Adam Driver’s portrayal of Jack Gladney in White Noise also continually echoes this. He is a father, husband and ‘Hitler studies expert’ who aims to impress, protect and avoid death at all costs.
The literary Americana in Delilo’s novel, on which this film is based, is adapted so truthfully that at times its dialogue seems to have jumped from the book, embedding itself firmly in the vernacular of this bizarre on-screen family. An opening breakfast scene is more a cacophony of voices clearly written in a rhythm as opposed to lines intended to be heard individually. Baumbach is interested in heightened language, citing an inherent comedy in all of his films that can be suppressed, typically in the form of married couples’ dynamics. In his last joint Marriage Story, Driver plays helpless divorcee Charlie, who sobs to his wife during an infamously uncomfortable fight scene: “Every day I wake up and I hope you’re dead! Dead, like, if I could guarantee Henry would be okay, I’d hope you get an illness and then get hit by a car and die!” Whoever chose to screen this clip in front of the director during his recent talk in London showed genius incentive, as the mix of gasps and giggles proved his point. People are so unaware of how funny they sound all the time, especially in situations where they instinctively know we shouldn’t be laughing, This absurdity of everyday speech is propelled by actors who understand it intuitively. No one does this more so than Greta Gerwig. Her co-writing and starring in husband Baumbach’s other films (Frances Ha and Mistress America) culminates here as Jack’s hilarious, troubled wife Babette. She teaches a posture course to the elderly and is testing out a mysterious drug called ‘Dylar’.
The director is clearly covering new postmodern and more morally urgent ground here, balancing a complex emotional tale with a small town’s evacuation following ‘The Airborne Toxic Event’ executed on the same level as a Spielberg exodus. Whilst one may be mistaken into thinking this is not a subplot, the main event is even more urgent: an existential dread of brand name consumerism and calamity culture. As Jayne Anne Philips has said of the cult novel, “Americans in White Noise do well to study their supermarkets closely, since death is edging nearer, anonymous, technical, ironically group-oriented.” Viewers will probably be divided in response to the means by which this is conveyed, although the end credit supermarket dance to LCD Soundsystem’s first release in 5 years (and the catchiest song since 2017 for sure) “New Body Rhumba” is undeniably brilliant. Who could ask for more than Outkast’s André 3000 hip-wiggling choreography whilst holding a bag of cookies to the entirety of the 7 minute track? It also harks back to the supermarket end credits dance scene in Fantastic Mr Fox, suggesting an imminent rewatch to find more similarities.
This is a movie where deliriously bold imagery bodes well with black comedy, from Professor Murray’s (Don Cheadle) fixation on literal ‘car crash’ seminars, to his rap battle with Driver in an intense duel lecture about Elvis’s and Hitler’s respective relationships with their mothers. As Baumbach satirises consumer culture, he in turn finds dignified meaning in the lives of Delilo’s terrified counterparts, whose nuclear relationships allow his protagonist to survive the world. A tone of earnest and romantic sincerity emanates from the novel, in conjunction with the mundanity of real world routine. Delilo writes: ‘Babette and I have turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night about fathers and mothers, childhood, friendships, awakenings, old loves, old fears (except fear of death). No detail must be left out, not even a dog with ticks or a neighbor’s boy who ate an insect on a dare. The smell of pantries, the sense of empty afternoons, the feel of things as they rained across our skin, things as facts and passions, the feel of pain, loss, disappointment, breathless delight. In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now.’ In this sense, the author’s attitude can be seen as present throughout all of Baumbach’s work, as his yearning characters repeatedly contrast and reconcile with one another, to eventually hopeful ends.