White Noise (2022)

by Afra Nariman

White Noise (2022)

Director: Noah Baumbach

Stars: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, Andre 3000


“My life is either/or.”

So much of our problems, both the tangible and the abstract, existential ones, stem from the human urge to divide into binaries: life or death, birth or violence, good or evil, right or wrong, intelligent or ignorant, doom or hope, or featured prominently in this film, killers and diers, etc. Practically every character in this film thinks in terms of binaries — and this causes them suffering. The binary at the center of White Noise is the defining debate that most people have, subconsciously or not, at some point in our lives. That is; life and death. Everything that we do, each action that we take, or decision that we make, is either aimed towards preserving life, or avoiding death. All other things are secondary to this. As Babette says to Jack in the film, she loves him; but she fears death more than she loves him. 

In White Noise, Baumbach creates a world that mirrors elements of our own — simply with aspects of it heightened. The world of the film is very much defined by a sense of doom that is simultaneously both fleeting, and approaching. The film deals with some of the factual history of human suffering and specific death-inducing events of the past; and it also deals with the fear of death as an inescapable, determined, and finite outcome of living life. This simultaneous dichotomy is reflected in the characters (i.e. an expert on “Hitler Studies” has a deep fear of death) At one point Jack essentially acknowledges that evil persists, for a large reason because people fear the loneliness of looming death, and choose to join a crowd that they believe will support their goal of preserving their life over their demise. 

“We’re all aware there’s no escape from death. And how do we deal with this crushing knowledge? We repress, we disguise…”

We are all finding ways to avoid facing our mortality; in whatever form we find it easiest to deal with that fact — ignoring it, obsessing over it, etc. No matter our background, culture, demographic, the corner of the world we come from, or our class — the common, bonding thing that all human beings collectively deal with is facing mortality. Many people join a crowd, or a formed community to feel just a little less lonely in a world that is always remembering terrible events, and waiting for the next one to happen. What happens when these moments do come, is when our sense of home — the illusion of saftey — is shattered, forcing us to confront the realistic potentiality of our demise, given the circumstances of a world abstractly, or literally, deteriorating around us. As Jack reiterates in the film: 

“Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”

Family, or perhaps even the crowds Jack speaks of, offer an escape, or distraction, from the reality we all fear — of loneliness followed by certain death. Family gives the impression of lasting time, invincibility, stability. This is a delusion, based on the above logic. 

The period of the film is set in the 1980’s — years removed from the last major catastrophic, lived-in event that traumatized Americans. Relative to what is expressed in the film’s opening scene which discusses the notion of American optimism in relation to televised car crashes; the film also exudes the sentiment that we tend to look back on terrible events of the past — ones that seem far removed from us — with a similar sense of perhaps not optimism, but we treat them with triviality, or “innocence;” yet we are incessantly afraid of anything remotely close to those events happening to us.

“Everything we loved and worked for is under serious threat. Even if there hasn’t been great loss of life, don’t we deserve attention for our suffering? Our terror? Isn’t fear news?”

In other words; due to our perception of humanity being defined by history — a history that is filled with suffering, and evil, and inescapable death — we tend to obsess over how to categorize our own existences as ones painted by what many are disillusioned to believe to be a new, unique form of suffering all their own: fear, or existential dread.

At the time of the film, it was a new generation. The fear of death, then and now today, does not derive from war, famine, or disease. It is purely from the film’s calling card: existential dread. Though; when not directly faced with such events that past generations faced, people fetishize and obsess over recollecting and analyzing such moments from the past, and indulging themselves in the spectacles of violence and the misfortune of others in the present — in this context, film, television, and social media now, are a way for us to witness suffering and terrible things, without suffering the consequences ourselves. By partaking in watching violent spectacles happen second-hand, we feel not alone and a little less scared of these things ever happening to us. But as with most things, when faced with these moments ourselves, everything is thrown out the window and we are there facing the music, once again wrongfully thinking only in terms of the binary of life and death — which is what we see happen in White Noise. 

“I just can’t believe that we’re all marching towards non-existence. It haunts me.”

The film concludes by rejecting the notion of binaries — of offering a pathway to accepting death’s inevitability and instead worrying only about embracing the relationships around us in the meantime, not succumbing to the fear of what is both unknown and unavoidable. In the end, we get the sense that Jack and Babette no longer fear death more than they love each other. 

“Death without fear is an everyday thing. You can live with it.”

White Noise is by no means a perfect movie, but I connected with it, and was very much entertained by it.  


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

View this Review on Letterboxd: https://boxd.it/3CzM6n

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