Photo: ‘White Noise’
Noah Baumbach: The Auteur’s Career Takes Another Left Turn
Whereas some filmmakers make the big time with their debut feature, Noah Baumbach has been around for well over twenty years, and only recently has he been getting his due. A typical Baumbach film can be described as a domestic drama with a heavy dose of dark humor, with perhaps the best examples of such a formula being 2005’s ‘The Squid and the Whale’ and 2019’s ‘Marriage Story.’ While his films are often humorous, though, they also demonstrate an emotional honesty that can be disarming at times, putting Baumbach in a similar space with his close contemporary (and occasional collaborator), Wes Anderson.
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Unlike Anderson, whose movies are unabashedly whimsical and fantastical (even if they usually can’t be called outright fantasies), Baumbach’s films stay consistently grounded in the reality that you and I are familiar with — the world of bitter relationships, student loans, troubled high schoolers, and a general sense of dissatisfaction. As easy it would be to pigeonhole him, though, Baumbach’s filmography is a bit more diverse than all that, with him even landing a screenwriting credit for ‘Madagascar 3’ of all things; his movies, whether it be as director or screenwriter, are hard to confuse with one another.
If ‘Marriage Story’ was Baumbach’s breakthrough, being his Oscar-winning collaboration with Netflix, then his upcoming film may prove to be a make-or-break moment for the auteur. Once again with Netflix set to distribute it after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, ‘White Noise’ looks to be unlike anything Baumbach has tackled before, being his first adaptation of someone else’s work: Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise. Rather than adapting a modern mainstream hit, Baumbach is adapting a respected but somewhat niche novel by an even more niche author, yet as I am about to explain, the combination here may well prove to be fruitful, if unorthodox. Despite its premiere coming in a mere few weeks, we don’t a great deal about Baumbach’s ‘White Noise’ thus far, but as someone who has read DeLillo’s novel, as I have an idea as to what we can expect, and how Baumbach might do justice to a novel that’s notoriously hard to translate.
A Tribute to Noah Baumbach: A Modern Auteur
Don DeLillo’s White Noise: The Supposedly Unfilmable Novel
We don’t talk about literature that much, especially whatever’s outside the mainstream, but it must be said that Don DeLillo is quite the character. Active in the field for more than half a century now, and still going strong, DeLillo flirted with mainstream success with the publication of White Noise, which became a bestseller and won the National Book Award for Fiction. Now considered one of the best American novels of the 1980s, White Noise is an episodic narrative, following the lives of Jack Gladney and his family over the course of a year, with the first third of the novel being nigh-plotless. The middle third of the novel is by far the most famous section, being titled “The Airborne Toxic Event,” which sees the plot not only kick into gear but take a bizarre borderline horror flavor, involving a chemical spill that sends Jack and the townspeople into a panic.
Related article: A Tribute to Noah Baumbach: A Modern Auteur
Far more important than the plot is the deadpan satire which permeates the novel, mainly focusing on academia and Reagan-era commercialism but ultimately encompassing the whole breadth of suburban American life. It’s a funny book, in a way, but characters usually speak in a deliberately flat and disaffected manner, which some readers may find alienating, but others may just as well find appropriate. What makes White Noise such a difficult novel to translate to the screen lies less in its plot (of which there is little), or any content that would be considered too graphic for film, but rather the super-detached demeanor of its characters, along with its multi-layered sense of irony. It would take a rather specific kind of filmmaker to make DeLillo’s characters come to life while also preserving their aloofness; certainly, most filmmakers would try to make such aloofness more palatable.
DeLillo is not an author whose works get snatched up by Hollywood with any frequency; the last (and also first) time a novel of his was brought to the screen was 2012’s ‘Cosmopolis’, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Robert Pattinson at a point in his career when people still struggled to take him seriously. Both critically and commercially, ‘Cosmopolis’ was not a hit, being criticized for (perhaps fittingly for Cronenberg) being too alienating, though it must be said that the novel of the same title is not one of DeLillo’s major efforts either. Even so, Cronenberg is exactly the kind of filmmaker who could capture DeLillo’s idiosyncrasies, not in a way too dissimilar from how Baumbach probably planned to tackle White Noise; if anything, Cronenberg’s adaptation was criticized for being too faithful to DeLillo’s vision, strange as that sounds. Yet whereas Cronenberg is a patron saint of body horror — indeed all manner of things normal people would consider disgusting, Baumbach’s ear for dialogue and his incessant need to give his characters the warts-and-all treatment when conceiving them could prove to be an asset. If anyone can do justice to the flatly delivered and yet humorously macabre dialogue of DeLillo’s novel, it would surely be Baumbach.
Baumbach’s ‘White Noise’: Seemingly a Match Made in Heaven
We still don’t know much about this movie. We know Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig are the leads, which is basically perfect casting. We know the film will run well over two hours, which sounds about right. We still don’t know when Netflix plans to add the film to its streaming catalog, though my guess is it will happen about a month or two after the Venice premiere. As someone who remembers the novel a fair bit, I have a similar feeling about this movie as I did when Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ neared its release date: excitement, but also worry. ‘Dune’ was Villeneuve’s make-or-break moment and he knocked it out the park, and while ‘White Noise’ is made on a smaller scale, I can’t help but feel it represents the same point for Baumbach.
The most disconcerting part about the production of ‘White Noise’ is that while the expected production budget of $80 million was already too high (given what the film is adapting), the budget apparently skyrocketed to upwards of $140 million — which is just ridiculous. People are asking, “Where did all the money go?” and I find myself asking that same question, even as I anticipate the film’s premiere. Baumbach is the perfect filmmaker to adapt DeLillo’s novel, but ‘White Noise’ could be a major road bump in his career.
By Brian Collins
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