Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise” is not meant for everybody, but if you realize that chaos is the only thing that makes sense in our mortal lives, then you could probably resonate with the point of view of the director and the writer, Don DeLillo, on whose novel the film is based. So, let’s try to decipher the film’s symbolism and see if there’s something hidden beneath all that absurdity and erraticness.
“White Noise” could be best described by the phrase “apocalyptic comedy,” and if we look back at our lives for the last couple of years, then the phrase pretty much sums up our experience. A term we heard frequently being used in zombie films, i.e., “pandemic,” became our reality, and deeply impacted our sensibilities and perception. All of a sudden, we became aware of the survival instinct within us. We were awakened from our slumber and made to understand that our petty issues are not so important after all, and everything that is a part of the material world would mean nothing if we were not alive. A similar sort of situation was faced by the Gladney family too, when they realized that the airborne toxic event had the potential to impact their lives in ways and means that they hadn’t imagined. A lot of times, when things happen to us personally, we are not able to clearly observe and understand what exactly is happening because self-contemplation and analysis are rather difficult jobs for the majority. But when we see Jack, Babbette, and their children going through the same ordeal, we are able to see through the absurdity of the events and how “not making sense” is the most intrinsic attribute of human life. One of the worst aspects that came to light when the pandemic hit was how corrupted and disreputable the media had become over time.
“White Noise,” amidst addressing all the issues, doesn’t forget to take a jab at the fourth estate of democracy. Jack and his family were quarantined in a camp when an old man started speaking, which at first seemed like gibberish, but slowly started making sense. The man said that the news was nothing but fear, and we couldn’t agree more. We have witnessed, for the past decade, how media houses, instead of delivering facts and information, focused more on theatrics and drama as if they were running soap operas that changed and fabricated the narrative according to the TRP ratings of the show. The mainstream media has made a mockery of the truth and, more importantly, of our democracy. What amazes me is that Don DeLillo wrote his novel in the mid-Eighties, when the concept of a 24-hour news network was still pretty new to the world.
“White Noise” touches upon the notion of consumerism as well, where everybody wants to acquire more than is actually required. Multiple times we hear Denise and Steffie say that Babbette always bought more than she could eat. The idea of excessive consumption has become so ingrained in our lives that we feel that if we are not buying more than we need, then we are living in depravity. Also, the whole concept of a supermarket is to make the customers think that they need something when, in reality, they do not. The supermarket in “White Noise” represents not only the concept of consumerism but also a transitional zone between death and rebirth.
Prof. Siskind speculated that maybe embracing death was just like entering a sliding door. Throughout the absurd events and conversations, one thing that remains common is the constant talk of death and how much the characters fear impending doom. Jack says that he is petrified at how everybody is slowly and steadily walking towards a state of nonexistence, while his colleagues are of the opinion that imagining oneself dead is the ‘cheesiest form of self-pity’. Babbette’s fear of all mortal things perishing one day took over her, and she could no longer deal with it. What Babette did after that represented one of the most self-contradictory facets of our democracy, i.e., capitalism. Babbette had traded her body for a pill named Dylar, which could apparently remove the fear of death from inside humans. It’s interesting that she calls it a capitalistic transaction and shows us how commercialization has enwrapped our lives, so much so that we ourselves have become the products, and we trade nothing else but our own soul and conscience. When Siskind’s colleague named Cotsakis dies, Jack realizes that no matter how big, strong, famous, or powerful a person is, death doesn’t discriminate and comes to everybody.
The mass hysteria, the chaos, and the absurdity are established through the continuous discordant chatter that we hear whenever the whole Gladney family comes together. They just blurt out words that might or might not have any correlation to the narrative. Nobody wanted to hear what the other person had to say, but they just kept on rambling. Nothing makes sense holistically, but still, there is a pattern hidden under the erratic process, and that is what human beings are all about. Jack addresses our concerns and says that nobody wants to pay attention to things that really matter. Our existence couldn’t have been surmised in a better manner. This is exactly what we do in reality. We give a huge amount of importance to inconsequential things in life, but we forget that one day it will all come to an end. Like Jack and Babbette, most of us are not ready to accept that fact, and it takes a catastrophe to come to terms with the inevitable. We often think that without a purpose, our lives are worth nothing, and we start a process of giving importance to a lot of tangible things in life. But what we forget is that life is about living; it is purposeless and beautiful that way. We often feel that if we are not able to accomplish a certain goal, then there is no point in living. However, by doing so, we limit all of life’s freedoms and imprison ourselves in our own beliefs.
The most fascinating aspect of “White Noise” is that it can be perceived in a variety of ways, none of which are mutually exclusive. Noah Baumbach’s film takes any shape and form that you want it to, depending upon your own sensibilities. “White Noise” makes us privy to the futility of our actions, our distractions, our fears, and our behavioral tendencies and gives us an unabridged version of what human life is all about.