At a suspenseful moment in White Noise, the Gladney family flees a toxic chemical cloud released in an industrial accident. Opting for a traffic-beating short cut away from the mass evacuation shelter at a local boy scout camp, family patriarch Jack Gladney—professor of Hitler studies at the “College-on-the-Hill”—follows a group of survivalists driving a Land Rover. “In situations like this, you want to stick close to the people in right-wing fringe groups. They’ve practiced staying alive.” Off-road, the Gladneys crash their station wagon through the woods and ford a stream, while the kids in the back, wearing surgical masks, wonder whether sheep have eye lashes, which animal glands can be eaten safely, and whether more people were killed building the pyramids or the Great Wall of China.
This scene from Don DeLillo’s 1984 novel is reproduced—dialogue included—with near-perfect fidelity in director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach’s film adaptation. But there’s one crucial exception: Where Gladney deadpans “I followed three snowmobiles across an open field. They conveyed a mood of clever fun,” Baumbach has the car breaking through the woods into the open. The camera points up through the windshield into a great white void—the point of view meant to make the audience think the station wagon is about to go over a cliff. The next shot—from outside the vehicle—reveals the brown Chevrolet touching down in a grassy field. The family screams with adrenalin-fueled relief. The toddler who never speaks says his only line, “Again!” A film viewer steeped in American popular culture of the 1980s will have a sense of déja vu. The station wagon turned roller coaster pays homage to a similar scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983).
This kind of sly allusiveness explains nearly everything that both works and doesn’t in Baumbach’s movie version of DeLillo’s novel. Published in 1985, White Noise was a hyperbolic semi-satire of consumerism, tabloid and celebrity culture, suburban family life, American film’s love of car crashes, and the then-nascent idea of predictive data modeling. A more intellectual version of the Brady Bunch, the novel features Jack and Babette Gladney, their four kids from different marriages and one child from their own, but used them to reveal the inner workings of modern American society.
Nearly 40 years later, the novel now feels both prescient and understated. Long before Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Uvalde, Jack looks at his misfit teenage son, Heinrich (he denies naming him after Himmler) fearing that “he will end up in a barricaded room spraying hundreds of rounds of automatic fire before the SWAT teams come for him.” It’s a world of rumors and half-facts conveyed by radio, television, and print: Having survived the airborne toxic event, the kids learn that electromagnetic radiation might cause suicide or cancer. “Terrifying data is now an industry in itself,” Jack tells them. But no one is more scared than Jack himself, whose terror of death is absolute and whose search for a means to cheat or avoid the final end structures everything from his interest in Hitler and crowds to his and his wife’s marriage-threatening dalliance with a promising new anti-anxiety medication in secret clinical trials.
DeLillo was writing “a great American novel,” sometimes called “a systems novel”—Moby Dick set in a station wagon, a supermarket, and a refurbished colonial-style house—that portrayed how a society organized around conquering individual mortality, at any and all extravagant costs, had turned itself into a death machine. Also a noise machine. Already in the mid 1980s, DeLillo’s prose reflects how the names of products infiltrate our language, how our minds became junk heaps of information—often useless, often wrong (“It’s called the sun’s corolla,” one of the children says to another, “we saw it the other night on the weather network”).
Baumbach’s jokey National Lampoon’s allusion shows he understands how this kind of death-defying, time-eating, brain-wasting consumer-culture invasion of our subconscious actually functions, perhaps even more than the novelist did himself at the time he was writing. It doesn’t matter whether DeLillo had seen the Chevy Chase vehicle, or the preview, or only half-consciously glimpsed the movie poster that shows a loaded station wagon flying over the Grand Canyon. Like the accomplished scriptwriter he is, Baumbach—picking up on the word “fun” in a few sentences of terse description—transforms a moment of cognitive dissonance (are the people running for their lives actually enjoying it?) into a comic action sequence already latently inside the scene, awaiting its liberation through translation into a different medium. Baumbach’s gesture doesn’t exactly feel like he’s imposing the pop culture minds of John Hughes, Harold Ramis, and Chevy Chase on a highbrow “Great American Novel:" he wants us to understand that DeLillo was already taking dictation from Hollywood.
At the same time, lampooning his source text in this way means that Baumbach risks draining his own film of urgency. Not only have the Gladneys not driven their car off a cliff, they have driven it out of the frame of their own story and landed in the pre-scripted safe space called “movies of the 1980s.” In precisely this and other myriad tiny ways, Baumbach softens the eeriness, the anxiety, the fear of the unknown that makes up the rapidly beating heart of the original with nice tranquilizing doses of “period drama” that work on audiences far better than DeLillo’s fictional drug “Dylar” soothes his characters.
From the great set-piece arrival of students at the liberal arts college that Jack calls “the day of the station wagons,” Baumbach treats us to a sumptuous display of 1980s vintage reproductions: men in plaid golfing blazers, women with perms and pearls tying their sons’ sweaters around their shoulders, preppy-style; an A&P supermarket has been perfectly rendered, down to the lettering on cereal boxes, the aisle displays of sugarless chewing gum, Tide detergent and Pop-Tarts. The camera lingers over all these with an inescapable feeling of nostalgia for the era of Baumbach’s own childhood and adolescence. Nostalgia is another way to try to cheat death, but not the one DeLillo chose to emphasize.
These high production values faithful to period details of costume, color, automotive design, home décor, and typography only end up highlighting—by contrast—the film’s two glaring anachronisms. The first has to do with acting, the second with casting. With the notable exception of Greta Gerwig, who channels peak 1980s Melanie Griffith to imbue her Babette with a zany, neurotic edginess, the rest of the cast’s leading members, particularly Adam Driver as Gladney, keep everything pitched between reassuring tones for talking to toddlers and a cool deadpan speech affect that didn’t really enter everyday life until the mid to late 1990s, with an added dash of upbeat valedictorian panegyric for classroom lectures.
A great part of White Noise’s originality, however, derived from DeLillo’s adoption of the idioms of what was then the relatively new discipline of “cultural studies.” As with so much else in the novel, what sounded like satire barely scratched the surface of what would eventually become a dominating and domineering discourse in the American academy, soon to launch a thousand MLA panels on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as starting a race to the bottom in the cultural coverage of major newspapers: “I tell [my students] they can’t think of a car crash in a movie as a violent act,” goes one infamous riff that Baumbach makes into the film’s prologue, “It’s a celebration. A reaffirmation of traditional values and beliefs ... like Thanksgiving and the Fourth ... These are days of secular optimism of self-celebration.” These lines in the film are delivered as a classroom lecture in an upbeat tone of valedictorian panegyric by Gladney’s colleague and friendly foil, Murray Siskind. But that tone misunderstands and misstates everything that was meaningfully subversive and provocative about this kind of theorizing.
Gladney and Siskind are meant to be self-conscious analysts of their own daily lives. Their sometimes catechistical, sometimes dialectical exchanges provided the novel with a constant intellectual bass line. Early on, Siskind remarks “there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.” “It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got,” Gladney replies. That avant-garde brashness, bordering on mania—a kind of paranoid’s evangelical style—infused that generation’s professoriat’s death-haunted, meaning-haunted need to interpret anything and everything. That avant-garde moment in both novel and film arrives when Siskind and Gladney tandem lecture on Elvis and Hitler for their students. Murray talks about Elvis and his mother; Jack replies with anecdotes about Hitler and his own. It’s less an argument than a performance piece, a counterpoint and juxtaposition, an exercise in parallelism: something about crowds, something about conquering the fear of death by banding together, something about paranoia. It’s meant to prime the reader to continue the exercise in parallel thinking and about tipping points for fascism. The scene is a farce played as a triumph, the tone is high-stakes, but what about, exactly?
The 1980s film-actor equivalent of this rapid, anxious and anxiety-producing, sometimes grandiose, highly uncool way of intense talking can be found in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s My Dinner with Andre, Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio, and Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. It’s a speech mode favored by nebbishy, insecure white ethnic minorities trying to get their ideas across at the same breakneck speed they were trying to achieve respectability. This sensibility is channeled by another of DeLillo’s professors who explains that “the art of getting ahead in New York is about learning to express dissatisfaction in an interesting way.”
Ignoring 1980s speech patterns while steeping the audience in 1980s visual style isn’t a directorial oversight on Baumbach’s part as much as a well-curated effort to get ahead in the film world of 2022. Shouty, interrupty, anxious men on film seem now to provoke a corresponding mimetic discomfort in film audiences. Uncomfortable people make us uncomfortable, so edit them out. The fate of the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019) is instructive in this regard: a brilliantly shot and acted exercise in gut-churning anxiety and claustrophobia, starring Adam Sandler as one of those outer-borough chattering nudniks and hot-headed losers who bestrode the celluloid 1980s like colossi. Not only did the film disappoint at the box office, it conspicuously failed to receive an Oscar nomination. In DeLillo’s novel, the cult studs profs of the College-on-the-Hill are all cut from this cloth of larger-than-life white ethnics: department chair Alphonse Stompanato—a twisted parody of former Republican New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato—Cotsakis, a 300-pound Greek, another guy named Grappa, and new arrival Murray Siskind—“Who are you?” Gladney asks when they meet, “I’m the Jew, of course.”
Except that Baumbach’s version of the character, also named “Murray Siskind,” is conspicuously cross-racially played by Don Cheadle. This is another choice motivated less by fidelity to the source than the fear of social death awaiting any would-be cultural macher who’s trying to get ahead in the present moment. The casting has nothing to do with Baumbach’s interest in providing a historical and sociological corrective to DeLillo’s all-white liberal arts college faculty. Sure it’s true that academic departments of cultural studies and American studies always had a percentage, however small, of Black academics, even before the apparently benighted 1980s. The founder of the modern discipline of cultural studies indeed happens to be the mixed-race Carribean scholar, Stuart Hall; Henry Louis Gates Jr. was already working on his groundbreaking Signifying Monkey when White Noise came out. The problem here is that Baumbach’s casting choice completely falsifies the relationship between Siskind—the Jew interested in supermarkets, Elvis, and car crash aesthetics—and Gladney’s WASP professor of Hitler studies.
Siskind is able to analyze and also provide absolution for his colleague’s fascination with Nazism and thus makes DeLillo’s Hitler studies into something more than campus-novel satire: “Helpless and fearful people are drawn to magical figures, mythic figures, epic men who intimidate and darkly loom ... You wanted to be helped and sheltered,” Siskind says to Jack in one of their many supermarket conversations. “The overwhelming horror would leave no room for your own death ... On one level you wanted to conceal yourself in Hitler and his works. On another level you wanted to use him to grow in significance and strength ... Not that I’m criticizing. It was a daring thing you did ... To use him. I can admire the attempt even as I see how totally dumb it was.” “Not that I’m criticizing,” is recognizably Yiddish-inflected English. Cheadle’s version of this speech (verbatim from the novel) is a smooth-jazz, Black preacherly rebuke, consistent with the actor’s ethnicity but not his character’s. It’s a recognizably progressive gesture—if not exactly avant-garde—to cast a Black actor in a Jewish role, without bothering to change the character’s name, but—barring massive revisions to the original text—at least let Cheadle—a versatile and witty character actor— play him as a Jew! Eddie Murphy played a Yiddish-speaking barbershop zede in Coming to America, albeit a film about ethnic caricatures. Not that I’m criticizing, but it seems cinema should have room for transracial mimicry of all sorts, and what about “equity” for accent coaches!
The adjective “white” in White Noise is not about race or ethnicity, but of course everything in 2022 is now interpreted as about race. Baumbach has invited race into the film while also trying to pretend it doesn’t matter. A reductive contemporary sociological interpretation of DeLillo’s novel that misreads the titular “white” for effect would suggest that its explicit major theme—the failure of information and technology to save us from death—masks the novel’s “political unconscious”: its portrayal of white ethnics’ fascination with the cultural tropes of mainstream white America and the readiness of these white ethnics to embrace the fascist potential always latent in these conformist rituals in the interest of living—not forever—but safely within the comforts of the mass. Gladney’s fascination with actual fascism points to the weakness already inherent in this purportedly inclusive idea of mainstream American whiteness. Murray Siskind’s Jewishness provides an ironic, outsider counterpoint to this drive to assimilate, even as he participates in its rituals.
Baumbach’s multiracial casting, however, doesn’t even allow for this possible “critical” reinterpretation of his source. Neither, on the other hand, does he have the courage of his casting decisions, which would have meant making a different kind of film about the interracial friendship and rivalry that develops between two university professors interested in a similar set of cultural practices from different perspectives. No plausible Black professor of cultural studies would lecture about Elvis without mentioning his vexed relationship to African American blues and blues artists. Aiming for “equity,” or eager to avoid censure, Baumbach has instead produced a double erasure. Lest he be accused, as he’s been in the past, of making films about “privileged” “white” people and their presumably unimportant emotional dramas, Baumbach replaces Jew with Black—without bothering to change the script to reflect the difference—hoping that neither Jews nor Blacks nor anyone else will complain. Take a shortcut; crash the car.
Marco Roth is Tablet’s Book Critic at Large