Saturday, December 3, 2022

Same As It Ever Was: WHITE NOISE

You can always tell when a filmmaker enjoys reading great literature. There’s the extra understanding of the importance of the shape of a story, an added attention to weaving incident and images with thematic motifs, a patience for constructing dialogue with an ear for layers of meaning and revealing detail. There’s the confidence for letting a story feel like it’s sprawling, even as the pile-up of moments and impressions builds to somewhere intentional. Watching a movie from such a filmmaker—even a partially-successful one—can sometimes activate the English class seminar in me, filling the brain with the pleasing close-reading feeling of getting absorbed in a fascinating narrative and pinging off each noteworthy detail as you build a grand theory of the text.

Noah Baumbach’s always been a clever, verbose screenwriter, with his early efforts like Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy of a piece with that 90’s wave of East Coast indie wordsmiths, like Whit Stillman and Hal Hartley, who made their bones on dialogue patter with a fine-tuned ear for idiosyncratic character. Lately, though, he’s risen to greater heights, and ever more literate efforts. His Marriage Story is a precise dance of perspective as both partners in a divorce have their foibles and complaints balanced on the fulcrum of what’s best for their child. In its focused generosity of character and anecdote, it has the vibes of a densely imagined ensemble adult drama of the Terms of Endearment or Ordinary People adaptations kind, albeit with more quotidian conflicts instead of tear-jerking tragedy. Fizzy comedies like Mistress America and Frances Ha are shaggy, observational, and quippy like a slim, charming, surprisingly soulful character study. Greenberg has its cranky epistolary hook. Best is his The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which, from the title on down, plays like the best collections of linked short stories. This one has insight into three generations, interest in art and legacies, empathy for revealing eccentricities and tender connections, and smart repetitions of key lines. That gives it the intimate interior scope of the finest-tuned concision.

His latest is a further expression of his literary tastes: White Noise, an ambitious adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel. That classic was a timely satire of middle-class ennui, academia’s tunnel vision, and consumer culture’s mass homogenizing media noise. It’s the story of a small-town college professor (Adam Driver) and his family. He’s an expert in Hitler Studies. His wife (Greta Gerwig) is a frizzy-haired wellness coach and secret addict of experimental pills. They have a Brady Bunch of children from their previous marriages. The first part of the story is a swirling, arch take on campus politics—especially as the professor talks with colleagues, including a new friend (Don Cheadle) who teaches a class on cinematic car crashes and dreams of being the expert in Elvis Studies—and a cozy, overlapping ensemble family dramedy. The second, best, part takes a swerve for the apocalyptic, as a train derailment sparks what’s known euphemistically as an Airborne Toxic Event. The town has to evacuate, cutting short the brewing plot lines and tossing the characters dynamics into a tumbler. These sequences are shot with wide lens complexity and dazzling real-world spectacle—like Altman’s Nashville traffic jam meets the UFO gawkers from Spielberg’s Close Encounters. The final stretch, an extended denouement, returns to resolve some of the threads from before, but the traumas of the middle stretch contaminate. The new dark cloud of mortality that hangs over all.

Appearing on our screens now in 2022, the adaptation is somehow even more timely in the midst of a pandemic, and an opioid crisis, and an ongoing erosion of confidence in systems big and small. But to reduce it to the oblique commentary on its 80s times, or ours, is shortchanging it as a work of ideas. It buys into the humanity of its characters and their predicaments, even as the movie operates at a heightened pitch. It swings from quiet, tightly-framed, naturalistic dialogues to loud, highly choreographed, widescreen sequences saturated with colors and lights. In grocery stores and campus cafeterias, the fluorescents practically radiate with an intensity. In the home, crowded with kids and books and nooks and crannies, there’s a cozy hustle and bustle to the more naturalistic textures. In the wilderness, an endless highway and crowded campground, there’s wide open possibility that’s somehow closing in. Here’s a story at least in part about life as a jumble of sensations guided by circumstance and environment that don’t care for you or your systems. And it’s about the meanings we make with, and for, each other to make sense of it in spite of the bombardments of stimulus. “Family,” goes a repeated professorial axiom herein, “is the cradle of misinformation. We’re fragile creatures, and the society we’ve built to obscure that fact is easily strained. A key image has to be an evacuated man angry that their fear hasn’t made the news, and thus isn’t validated, or that that feels the same as not existing at all.

Baumbach stretches his style here with impressive dexterity and scope. He shoots his adaption like a 90s ironic version of a 70s suburban drama—all overlapping dialogue and roaming camera and self-consciously elaborate tableau. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is slick and insistent, not unlike what Conrad Hall brought to American Beauty or how Alan Rudolph half-successfully adapted Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. It’s at once flatly naturalistic and cocked at a half-joking expressionism. Turns out, you tip an 80s consumerist playground or small-town aesthetic just slightly to the left or right and you get a rumbling, believable self-satirizing setting. There’s a high-toned seriousness played for woozy, breezy, frazzled choking smirks. Danny Elfman’s score has pounding carnival horns and soaring theremins and dark, noodling madness—a perfect amalgamation of his collaborations with Tim Burton and Sam Raimi. Together the sound and image create a tension, a lightness, and an inner motor for a movie that bursts with inner life—the suggestion of intellects spiraling. And in the middle is a rather believable family relationship, as Driver and Gerwig and the younger performers make a unit that’s lovably eccentric and unbelievably tossed about by the upsetting events that threaten to tear them apart. There’s something emotive there to hang onto as the movie takes its spins through incidents amusing, frightening, chaotic or cringing. It looks at a world with fears, and denials, and ominous signs of contamination and infection and distraction and despair and says, well, fair enough. But you gotta have hope, too.

The movie, like the book, albeit without slavishly chasing its every rabbit hole, feels caught, and overwhelmed, in a time of transition. DeLillo’s work was in the mode of fascinating 80’s boomer novels—far enough from the incomplete progress of 60’s radicals to feel the failures, and taking the temperature of the very waters that’ll brew the Gen X disaffected distancing. Inspired by this source, Baumbach has copied over its frazzled stream of ideas, a sure-footed confusion, a world bombarded with messages and television and radio dispatches and camcorders and corded telephones. He captures a sense of disruption, and places at its center earnest performances invested in the characters emotions. It’s a neat trick making the people real and their world hyperreal, piling on details verging on surreal—The Event, vivid nightmares, a drop into potential climactic violence—while the characters maintain their sense of self. The film strains to capture these extremes at times, tipping fleetingly into too-clever artifice while trying to play it flat. And without the inner monologue there’s some vagueness around some less convincing plot turns. (What works on the page is sometimes harder to transition on screen, especially the swerves in the final third.) And yet, Baumbach directs like a smart reader, drawing our attention like a tour guide to the ideas and images and people on display. He takes us through a book’s notable ideas, dramatized and stood up on a stage for us to see. Not unlike when Gerwig herself adapted Little Women (easily my favorite classic-book-to-film in many years), the form itself is an argument to return to the text. It may not be a great movie, but, at its best, it can light up one’s brain like one.

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