White Noise: Modern Rituals and Plastic Wrapped Religion
“Everything is a car.”
So speaks a character in Noah Baumbauch’s White Noise. It’s not entirely clear if the aside is meant as adulation, lament, or mere commentary. Regardless, it’s a heck of a motto for these times.
These times being the 1980s, that is. The place being Ohio, where one Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) teaches Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill. If Hitler Studies seems like an unorthodox graduate program, well, Gladney invented the field himself and is widely considered its foremost expert. But it’s proved a contentious field, and Jack struggles to maintain his colleagues’ esteem, hiding the embarrassing fact that he can’t even speak German.
Jack has plenty of concerns at home, as well. His marriage to Babette (not his first) is fueled by mundane repetition, their reliance on each other as a source of stability, and a disconcerting pharmaceutical habit on the part of Babette (Greta Gerwig). Their kids, three from previous marriages and one of their own, are quickly reaching the age of doubting any statement that Jack or Babette make. But then, they rarely seem sure of their own claims.
Perhaps that’s because most of their statements are secondhand, ideas regurgitated from advertising slogans and television news personalities. For Jack and Babette are modern consumers, worshippers in a new temple: the supermarket. The icons of this age are brands carrying mystic power in their trademarked names. The hymns of this culture are commercial jingles. Its saints are the died-too-young and burned-too-bright stardoms of Elvis, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe. In this age, capitalism hasn’t destroyed religion, but it has subsumed it. It’s a brand new ontology sealed fresh in plastic wrap.
The world they live in is a comforting one where corporations are ever at the ready to assuage any discontent, attenuate any fear, and supplement every desire with the latest product. Unfortunately, not all discontentment and fear can be tamped down. After a train crashes and explodes nearby, ominous fumes fill the sky. The Gladneys insist that there’s nothing to be alarmed about—after all, the trusty news reporters have told them not to worry. But when the news admits the danger and exhorts everyone to evacuate immediately, the terror fully sets in.
Baumbach’s White Noise is based on Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, which unleashed this “airborne toxic event” on an unsuspecting consumer class. As the Gladneys race from the manmade stormcloud, their survival instincts turn gradually toward a need for real meaning in their lives. This is what both the book and movie are after: In a postmodern world where our cravings are easily sated by entertainment and purchasing power, what happens to transcendence? It gets packaged and resold.
The brightly colored boxes at the supermarket, the glistening teeth of salesmen, the calm confidence of talking heads—all these work to mitigate fears and whittle down desires to their most manageable forms. In other words, they immanentize the world, blocking out any thought of the transcendent. But the last enemy is too powerful a foe. The inbreaking reality of death is terrible, invisible, and undeniable as it hovers over their heads. Death forces a confrontation they avoided at every moment.
DeLillo’s style and sensibilities compose a devilishly tricky task for adaptation, but White Noise does a pretty good job. The cast handles the dry irony of the script well, but Don Cheadle outpaces the rest of them anytime he’s onscreen as Murray, Jack’s fellow professor. Baumbach lifts much of the dialogue directly from the novel, which is both a strength of and the biggest critique against the film: the best moments are all from DeLillo’s mind, not Baumbach’s vision.
The film does contribute an inventive visual sense of the off-kilter. The imagery is vibrant and weird, from the college lecture halls to the crammed highways to the seedy motels. Things are odd, but the characters can’t explain why. The storm, hued in electric greens and reds, becomes a downright alien presence.
To the Gladneys and their neighbors, it is alien. Their world has no place for the invasive specter of death. The airborne toxic event heralds a twilight of modernity’s idols, and the characters are thrown back into reality without a clear source of meaning. The adults all presumed on life continuing its typical rhythms. They even construct convenient narratives to explain such security: the nearby presence of kids means that no harm could possibly come to them.
And if children guarantee safety by their proximity, then California promises safety by becoming the sacrificial lamb. California, another professor explains, is where all the truly bad disasters occur. “Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom.” It’s absurd, but it’s not far less reasonable than our own ways of avoiding the truth. The surety that things simply follow the agreed upon order—an order currently mediated through streaming services and two-day deliveries—is a particularly demented and particularly American illusion.
When it comes to that search for foundational meaning, White Noise offers distinct paths in its two forms. DeLillo’s novel ends with Jack receiving medical care from Sister Hermann Marie, a nun who accosts Jack for assuming that belief in God and the devil and angels and heaven and hell comes packaged with the whole being-a-nun thing. She insists that she doesn’t have any real faith, but she continues as a nun because “the nonbelievers need the believers. They are desperate to have someone believe… This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs.”
The trust that someone out there believes in transcendence is a comforting notion. Perhaps unknowingly, Jack proves her point by referring to her as “my nun” as he’s being treated, as if her faith could be transposed onto him. Her lack of belief is a coup de grâce to Jack’s certainty, and he leaves the encounter more lost and untethered than ever before. This is DeLillo’s final irony: That in this capitalist age, even the sacred callings have been fully immanentized, and faith becomes a relic to those who don’t believe.
While it doesn’t quite read as a hopeful ending, the scene highlights the negative space of belief that’s been in silhouette throughout the novel. When our most sacred rituals are movie car crashes and shopping sprees, we’ve lost something foundational. To regain real transcendence, we must make space for faith to be more than mere relic, to be a living thing with a hope centered on a holy God.
Baumbach shifts the tenor of this final scene: the harsh Sister still rails at Jack’s naïveté, but Babette is now by Jack’s side. As the nun leaves them, Jack and Babette slowly turn to face each other in a quiet moment indicating forgiveness, reconciliation. A new start. It indicates that this is the meaning they’ve both been seeking: the love and connection we have with one another.
While there is beauty and vitality in this sense of meaning, it inevitably contracts the full compass of transcendence that the novel hints at. It also provides a more immediately uplifting moment, backing away from the blunt force of DeLillo’s irony. The choice is understandable and humanistic, but I feel it weakens the moment. It leaves faith as a relic—perhaps even an unnecessary one, if we can learn to ground our meaning in each other—which strips away much of the novel’s weight. With this move, the silhouette never becomes substantial.
White Noise skewers our comforts by offering a skewed view of our modern society. It’s a world that’s distorted yet revelatory. Meaning is hard to find in this life, and both novel and film prophesy that we’ll never find it in the ease of another purchase or the thrill of the next entertainment. The quest for an “exalted narrative life” breaks through our illusions, but the novel and film offer different answers. I find deeper resonance and greater foundation in the hope of the novel. Amid the hollow pleasures of modern life and the terror of death, real transcendence is found in the living God: This is the God for whom our souls thirst (Psalm 42:1-2), the same God who will destroy death (1 Corinthians 15:20-26). In Him we find the meaning we’ve been longing for, for in Him we have our very being (Acts 17:26-28).