White Noise: A Baffling Tale of Society’s Decadence

Noah Baumbach’s absurdist comedy is packed with powerhouse performers who deliver intricately and pompously
White Noise: A Baffling Tale of Society’s Decadence
Noah Baumbach’s White Noise

We are the architects of our own dystopia. Our perennially dopamine-seeking brain is absorbing more information than it can process. We are living with truncated attention spans in the infosphere -  a realm of information and communication - allowing the lines of labour and leisure to be blurred by our constant presence in the midst of this noise. We will soon be buried under the mountain of meaningless information, listening to orchestral white noise while updating our burial on social media in real time.

Noah Baumbach’s absurdist comedy about a family trying to grapple with an airborne toxic event and other ominous emergencies is set in this information overload vacuum we live in. Adapted from the eponymous novel by Don DeLillo, the movie satirizes the existential boredom in which the modern world is seeped. It is sharply written with dialogues that rapidly float in and out of frames with authoritative emergency and suffocating saturation, with the quirky indulgence of Baumbach’s genius characterisations. It is packed with an assembly of powerhouse performers - Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle - and all deliver intricately and pompously. 

Adam Driver in White Noise

“Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”

White Noise effectively paints the picture of our private spaces that are ceaselessly bombarded with information. There is no end to the interaction with information in the infosphere; no final cathartic episode where all the data reconciles to create a crescendo of meaning and purpose because the nature of this information overload is twofold - redundant and noisy. The information wears the cloak of banality by being insipid and repeating similar themes, making it trite. There is duplication of information resulting from the homogenisation of global information sources, for instance, mass media houses being bought by singular conglomerates. Information also suffers from blanding where rough news or media is filtered to produce comfortable insipidity. 

The information which is not redundant exists on the other end of the spectrum - housing too much variety that makes it noisy. Redundant and noisy information is too loud in always trying to grab attention in their limited space for existence, too chattery with multiple sources using the same medium at the same time. White Noise embodies this overload and the perilous battle of fighting against false and contradictory information throughout its run time, using the family as the inevitable medium.

“May the days be endless, let the seasons drift, do not advance the action according to a plan.”

White Noise explores the monumental moments of nothingness, where time ceases to create meaningful memories and exists only as a stretched-out flavourless gum. These moments seem to last forever and the social construction of meaning appears to be a farce, clouded by the intolerable stream of information strolling around as intrusive passers-by. Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies who invented the program not because he admires the Fuhrer but because Hitler is a strong brand in the intellectual marketplace. He cannot speak German and often pays a translator to teach him a few pertinent phrases before major academic conferences. His desire to embrace an identity that provides media validation but sits far from the truth of his self-awareness mirrors the purposeless anointment of media-saturated individuals. Greta Gerwig who plays Jack’s dippy fourth wife Babette shares his fear of death. In an attention-starved world that escapes the clutches of meaning, the fear of death exists as an inexorable side effect.

While Jack allows his fear to manifest through a white sheet of faceless horror, Babette surrenders herself to a capitalist transaction where she sells her body (but not her face because that stays covered in a ski mask) for a mysterious drug called Dylar, which is manufactured as a part of a clinical trial to cure people of the fear of death, by a homeless corrupt researcher called Mr Gray who speaks incoherently and is incapable of differentiating between his own speech and the media generated slogans he spews during conversations. 

Noah Baumbach’s White Noise

“Everything will be fine as long as the supermarket doesn’t slip.”

White Noise uses the supermarket as a thread that stitches both the overloaded world and the movie together. It is shown as an island bazaar that is a spiritual getaway, a waiting place, where people derive momentary meaning from their consumeristic indulgences. In a world where creating objective meaning requires a strenuous cognitive understanding of the self along with the social structures that are nodally connected to the self, an innocuous and facile hyper-capitalistic transaction of currency for perishable goods appears favourable to the overstimulated, bored, and mentally emaciated consumer. The supermarkets in the movie are bright, full of psychic data, waves, and radiations; where all letters of spoken and written languages, all colours of the spectrum, all existential code words, and all ceremonial phrases are present. There are superfluous choices available to the consumer - to buy a packet of gum with artificial sugar and colouring or a packet of gum that causes cancer in lab animals. Each option is equally perilous but the ability to choose gives the consumer a spurious sense of control over their servile lives dictated by media consumption. The movie has a fitting end where every character dances to LCD Soundsystem’s hit song ‘New Body Rhumba’ in the aisles of the supermarket stocked with disconcerting amounts of the same items mirroring the redundancy of our lives kept afloat through song and dance.

Indie darling Baumbach delivers a well-crafted, socially relevant, and entertaining movie with White Noise. It was released by Netflix but like most genre-defying movies with specific and curious idiosyncrasies, it performed poorly. Told like a Spielbergian adventure, White Noise will be a testament to our dystopic times of media saturation, capitalism and overstimulation.

“We are all fragile creatures surrounded by hostile facts.”

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