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White Noise / Weißes Rauch

Director: Noah Baumbach (USA, UK). Year of Release: 2022

College-On-The-Hill. USA, the mid-1980s. A lecturer is holding forth on car crashes in US films, and how they provide us with a certain reassurance and an “American optimism”, which only US films are able to provide. Rather than providing theories, he uses a series of impressive sounding words and bright flickering pictures displayed from a film projector. He doesn’t need to do any more. This is post-modernist academia, where spectacle is much more important than anything which is said.

The camera moves to the home life of JAK (call me Jack) Gladney, a leading professor of Hitler Studies. Jack is taking secret German lessons, as there’s a Hitler conference coming up soon, and he’s worried that other academics will see him as a fraud. His family is typically stereotypical – consisting of his fourth wife Babbette (Baba), and their kids from previous marriages who are variously precocious and insufferable cute.

The film is divided into three sequences, the first of which involves Jack and Murray, the lecturer from the opening scene. Murray is trying to do to Elvis what Jack has done to Hitler. The sequence ends with the equivalent of a rap battle between the two professors, with each of them talking at length about their key subjects and their mother issues. The class is ecstatic and passing lecturers stop to join in the adulation. At the end, everyone gives the profs rapturous applause.

It should be obvious that this is intended as satire, albeit one that is averse to any sort of nuance. While watching the film, I was not too sure. The professors have nothing to say of any interest, but are not presented as pretentious fools. The whole of the film will be viewed through Jack’s eyes, asking us to identify with him. He is even given some statements about fate and death which sound as if they could be profound until they collapse in your ears in their vapid meaninglessness.

I could go on (and may well still do), but let’s first look at the other two sequences of the film. A whisky-drinking lorry driver crashes into a train. Their loads of toxic waste and incendiary materials mix and cause a fireball to cross the sky. Media reports are unsure whether to call the resultant cloud a plume of smoke or an Airborne Toxic Event. Either way, fire department cars rush through the streets, telling people that they’d better evacuate now.

Cars take to the highway, and Jack and Baba’s family eventually end up in a camp somewhere down the road. They stay in the camp for a while, until they are evacuated again and engage in some sort of prototype car chase, which ends with them driving out of some corn field into the end of a queue. Literally, nothing else happens – except for Jack being possibly infected -.although it is just as likely that he wasn’t. Then the sequence ends, and life goes back to normal. That is it.

In the third sequence, Jack, and eldest daughter Denise worry about Baba taking a non-prescription drug Dylar. When confronted about it, Baba initially refuses to say why she’s seeking medication. Eventually she admits that she has something equivalent to existential angst (aka First World Problems). In order to get the drug, Baba has slept with the provider, and – in a scene which is entirely lacking in any dramatic tension – Jack tracks him down.

Jack and Babette have earlier opened up to each other saying that each is afraid of dying before the other. This potentially profound scene could address very real fears – my own father was pathologically afraid that he would die before my arthritic and pre-senile mother, who was unable to look after herself. But in the entitled mouths of these upper-middle class academics, these fears sound frankly insulting to anyone who has truly been confronted with the very real dilemma.

Maybe you will like the film more, If you have a better relationship with it’s star Adam Driver. I I first became aware of Driver when he played a nondescript everyman in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. He’s great in this sort of film, but hardly oozes charisma. In the “rap battle” scene, for instance, your main reaction is to wonder why anyone would enjoy such pretentious drivel, delivered with so little style. The fact that Driver looks uncannily like Alan Partridge does not help here.

The best scene in the film is the final dance in a supermarket bedecked in primary colours to the sound of LCD Soundsystem. It would work very well as a music video, even better if the concept hadn’t been already owned by Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees video nearly 30 years ago. But even if that video hadn’t happened, it’s all too little too late. We’ve already lost interest. Some of us have left the cinema, others are only staying because there’s a while till their next meeting. We are no longer engaged.

By “we”, of course I mean “I”, Some, but definitely not all, critics loved White Noise. Far be it from me to say that this is because they occupy the same academic liberal milieu which thinks that it is radical to say that consumerism is bad while kicking down at anyone who didn’t go to their sort of University, but – oops, it seems that I did say it. This film will go well with a certain sort of smug misanthropic intellectual. I don’t remember the last time I saw a film which irritated me so much.

White Noise is based on a book by Don deLillo, which is supposed to be a biting satire on consumer culture. I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t comment on how well it achieved its aims. But I can say that this film is simply unable to address an audience outside its small privileged circle. Read the book, maybe, but don’t look for any solutions (or any entertainment) here.

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