Professor Jack Gladney, the narrator of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, White Noise, yearns for stasis. “Let’s enjoy these aimless days while we can,” he tells himself, “fearing some kind of deft acceleration.” At another point Gladney all but prays, “Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.” The novel does not just explore resistance to change and the fear of death; it is arguably about being an uninvolved spectator, a consumer, part of a crowd. Even when an environmental disaster upends the Gladney family’s comfortable life in a well-off university town, they remain detached observers. DeLillo’s characters exhibit and reflect on the ways vast, unknowable systems of production and information proliferate and place the individual at an often confusing—though in some ways commanding—distance from reality. Death looms over this spectatorship as the one reality that can’t be observed from a pleasant distance.
These themes present some significant challenges to the filmmaker attempting to adapt White Noise for the screen. In how-to books, screenwriting experts write endlessly of a movie’s need for conflict, tension, and suspense. French director François Truffaut wrote that “the art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience, so that the viewer is actually a participant in the film.” But how to involve the audience when the story is about being an audience? How, more specifically, to enliven the characters’ detachment? How to dramatize the passive consumption of information and commodities? And how to create real drama out of dialogue that often seems a mouthpiece for DeLillo’s own philosophical musings on things like supermarket shopping, tourism, and doctors’ visits?
Noah Baumbach seems in many ways an unlikely candidate for the job. Although his films have certainly reached philosophical heights at points, they usually start on the ground, in the muck of real human emotion: the childhood confusion and loss of his breakthrough film, The Squid and the Whale; the rudderless malaise of post-graduate adulthood in Kicking and Screaming; the midlife depression and shame of Greenberg. His scenarios are typically drawn from real life (if Park Slope qualifies as real life) and his films succeed most when the particulars—of character, conversation, or conflict—flash up into recognizable universals, not when a philosophical concept is embedded in some suitably evocative fiction. Not everyone knows what it’s like to have a father like Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Meyerowitz Stories, who takes out frustrations about a middling artistic career on long-suffering adult children, but most of us know what it’s like to deal with self-involved relatives and the damage such people do without knowing it.