How a professor of Hitler studies got Spielberged when the unfilmable was filmed
Noah Baumbach has the same relationship with the pop culture of yore that a teenager has with a volatile parent. Sometimes he’s worshipful, sometimes he’s doubtful or distrustful, sometimes he’s totally over it and utterly under its spell at the same time. The only thing he can never be is indifferent: One way or another, his work is always announcing the music and movies that came before it, scampering around in the ’60s, the ’70s and the ’80s — not coincidentally, the decades he grew up in.
Nostalgia is a powerful drug, even if you should know better. There’s a funny moment in While We’re Young when Adam Driver psyches up Ben Stiller by playing “Eye of the Tiger” — “I remember when this song was just considered bad,” Stiller says, but it works anyway, because crap gets respectable if it lasts long enough. In the best part of Baumbach’s best film, The Squid and the Whale (which, as it happens, is about a teenager with volatile parents), Jesse Eisenberg’s character plagiarizes Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” for a high school talent show, gets caught, and defends himself on the grounds that he could have written the song, “so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality,” a bit of teenage bluster that becomes almost sweet when you consider that the scene itself was cribbed from a similar one in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
Baumbach’s admiration for the oldies at times borders on envy. In the documentary De Palma, the director of Dressed to Kill and Scarface brags about his years of working with maximal budgets and minimal studio interference. “You guys will never have it so good,” Brian De Palma smirks (what I wouldn’t give to have seen the look on Baumbach’s face when he heard that).
De Palma may have spoken too soon, however. Early last year, it was announced that Baumbach — Mr. Mumblecore, the king of shoestring, the guy whose work inspired the Onion headline “You Haven’t Seen Frances Ha Until You’ve Seen It In IMAX” — would be directing a blockbuster. White Noise, adapted from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, cost $80 million (about 27 Frances Has) to make, and the early trailers seemed to be trying their darnedest to sell it as a Jurassic Park-size thrill ride.
Having read the novel, I assumed this was irresponsible marketing and nothing more, but now that I’ve seen the movie I can report that there’s a fair amount of Spielberg after all, albeit with a protective coating of irony. This is Baumbach’s most reference-stuffed work, which is saying something: In addition to Spielberg, there are hefty helpings of National Lampoon and giallo and Devo and De Palma. He has never worn so much vintage pop culture on his sleeve, and — bizarrely, for a film with so much media studies chatter — he has never had less of interest to say about it.
Our protagonist, played by Adam Driver, is Professor Jack Gladney, founder of the trendy new field of Hitler studies (anybody who finds this detail implausible either hasn’t sat in a college classroom recently enough or majored in STEM). With his fourth and current wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), he raises four children, who not only sound the same but sound like him.
The film, like the novel, is split into three parts, each corresponding to a different narrative genre: a campus farce, in which Jack frantically tries to learn German and competes with his frenemy, Professor Murray Siskind, who wants to do for Elvis what Jack has done for der Führer; a disaster thriller, in which Jack must protect his family from a nasty chemical explosion called the Airborne Toxic Event; and a domestic drama, in which Jack learns that Babette has been diddling a mysterious man in return for pills that may cure her fear of death.
“All plots move deathward,” Jack says, but White Noise pointedly lacks much of a body count, not that this distracts the characters from their strict regimen of existential dread.
Baumbach’s film is stilted, unbelievable (as opposed to merely implausible), by turns too schlocky and too thuddingly sarcastic — but then, so is its source text. The difference is that White Noise the novel happens to be a great work of art, its flaws part and parcel of its glory: It absolutely shouldn’t work, which makes it all the more satisfying that it does. No matter how clumsy the plot’s swerving, the smooth eloquence of DeLillo’s prose holds things together. The characters hunt for secret messages in banal things, and DeLillo hunts along with them. He describes a team of workers in hazmat suits moving with “lunar caution,” and somehow you understand exactly what that metaphor means before your brain catches up. He does with words what Jack and his peers try and fail to do with media studies: find surprising connections between things, pull a weird contemporary beauty out of an empty hat.
He’s also funny. The first time I read White Noise, I was laughing out loud inside of a minute:
I am chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. I invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968. It was a cold bright day with intermittent winds out of the east. When I suggested to the chancellor that we might build a whole department around Hitler’s life and work, he was quick to see the possibilities. It was an immediate and electrifying success. The chancellor went on to serve as adviser to Nixon, Ford, and Carter before his death on a ski lift in Austria.
“Hitler studies” is the obvious punch line here, but save some love, please, for that bit about the ski lift. In interviews, DeLillo has mentioned his fondness for the well-aimed, destabilizing aside, somehow neither quite relevant nor irrelevant; here, with great economy, he raises unanswerable questions (What was the chancellor doing in Austria? Does it matter that Hitler was a chancellor, too?), and he does it without coming across too arch or too precious — this is, after all, the kind of absurdity one might actually find in an alumni magazine, glance at for 10 seconds, and forget.
Nine novels and 25 years into his career, in short, Don DeLillo found a style of prose and comedy that fit the paranoia, giddiness and randomness of contemporary American culture. That Noah Baumbach has failed to do the same cinematically is no disgrace, but it’s no fun, either. Jokes that linger on the page fizzle onscreen as the actors struggle to make the gnomic sound naturalistic.
Gerwig acquits herself well enough — she finds a dazed, dizzied, gasping affect that’s striking without being one-note — but Driver never finds his way. He seems to be starting over with every scene, frowning helplessly as the script commands him to do this or that, over- or underreacting according to some never-disclosed logic (this might all be the point, I guess, though I’d use exactly the same words to describe Driver’s performance in House of Gucci).
A high point of the novel comes when Jack, fleeing the Airborne Toxic Event with his family, learns that the government will be using real-life evacuation data to improve future simulations of evacuations (Baudrillard, Benjamin, “the simulation is more real than reality,” and so on). As literature, the deadpan slays; as cinema, it strains. Driver seems almost as numb as the actor who’s explaining the simulation to him; there’s not enough comic friction between them, nothing to measure the craziness against.
What’s missing from this film is any kind of visual elegance that can match the literary eloquence of the novel. Working with the cinematographer Lol Crawley, Baumbach gets some nifty shots of brightly colored storefronts and supermarkets, I’ll admit, but if he thinks that counts for anything much, 20 years after Andreas Gursky (or 60 after Warhol, or 80 after Hopper), he’s less savvy than I’d assumed. Baumbach has always been a more daring writer than image-maker; here, whether he’s dealing with breakfast or mass emergency, scenes tend to play out in the same tame, fussy shot-reverse shot.
The only exceptions come when he dives headfirst into pop culture pastiche. Much of the middle third of White Noise is shot like an ’80s Spielberg movie, all looming pans and slack-jawed reaction shots (there’s also a long scene in a station wagon that’s unmistakably based on National Lampoon’s Vacation). And yes, sure, fine: the Spielberg blockbuster style, which was congealing into cliché around the same time that DeLillo was finishing White Noise, is overused. But in that case why trot it out again, even with a wink?
The other problem is that Steven Spielberg is, without question, a better director than Noah Baumbach: a more graceful stylist, a bolder risk-taker, someone who thinks in images, not words. I don’t know if Baumbach intended satire or tribute or a little of both — in any case, the whole Spielberg section has the misplaced condescension of, say, Lars von Trier smugly dunking on Hollywood musicals in Dancer in the Dark.
But at least Baumbach is smarter than Spielberg, isn’t he? He makes arty, intellectual movies, after all, while Spielberg makes mindless entertainments! Perhaps so, though I’m unable to glean much in the way of ideas from the final, De Palma-riffing third of White Noise, other than that it’s been far too long since I’ve watched an actual Brian De Palma movie. To paraphrase something James Wood wrote about Paul Auster, Baumbach does nothing with pop cliché except use it. If, however, you still want to watch a recent film that makes insightful points about how we’re all dominated by the clichés of old pop culture, I would recommend Spielberg’s Ready Player One.