White Noise and Spiritual Static
In Netflix’s quirky yet profound White Noise, Jack (Adam Driver) and Babette (Greta Gerwig) have it all: a great marriage, a loving blended family, a handsome house, a high-status job for Jack as a popular and renowned Hitler studies professor at the prestigious College on the Hill in 1980s Ohio. Yet their beatific and carefully constructed lives mask a secret dread that haunts them both. Jack and Babette suffer from a paralyzing fear of death—and their numerous and humorous attempts to deflect this primal fixation bring them neither hope nor joy.
But oh, how they try.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s faithful, yet streamlined, adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel begins with a montage of violent car crashes taken from American films. This is narrated in a litany/lecture by Murray (Don Cheadle), one of Jack’s fellow professors. Murray reverently celebrates each violent image as a unique display of “secular optimism, of self-celebration.” Likewise, Jack and Babette’s entire family religiously gathers around the television to watch disaster footage of actual crashes (this communal quirk is more developed in the novel). Similar to the atrocities at the Roman colosseums or the sacrifices at the Mayan temples, these depictions of popular culture trumpet the unifying and distracting entertainment of ritualized violence.
In her increasingly desperate attempts to stave off her fear of death, Babette—a serenely loving mother and spouse—proves capable of devious and destructive acts. Her diversions graduate from obsessions with sugar-free gum to coffee to books on the occult hidden in the attic to the clandestine acquisition of experimental pharmaceuticals that promise miracles. Nothing works for long.
Separately, the affable Jack also struggles with his own consuming fear of death. Visions of a mysterious, masked specter in short pants ominously haunt his dreams and reality. To distract himself, Jack passionately (and hysterically) lectures to mesmerized students about Hitler’s mother and the zealous power of the ecstatic Nazi crowd. His fear of impending death only increases when a cloud of deadly chemicals forces the family to flee their small Ohio town. From the perceived safety of an evacuation camp, Murray diagnoses his colleague’s failed attempts at self-delusion. “You thought Hitler would protect you,” Murray professes. “The overwhelming horror would leave no room for your own death.” Jack was wrong.
For his part, Murray seeks spiritual comfort through pilgrimages to the mecca of consumerism: a local supermarket chain. After learning about the accidental death of a rival, Murray races to meet Jack at this preferred church. Vibrantly designed in the garish colors of advertising, the supermarket comically functions for Murray as “the transitional spot between death and rebirth.” From the sanctuary of the supermarket’s gaudy isles, he proselytizes to Jack about the power of this place to “recharge me spiritually.”
“It’s a gateway,” Murray adds. “Maybe when we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die. . . . We simply walk toward the sliding doors.”
Jack and Babette suffer from a paralyzing fear of death — and their numerous and humorous attempts to deflect this primal fixation bring them neither hope nor joy.
As a Christian, I find myself strangely comforted by the indicting power of absurdist comedy, whether found in the great plays of Samuel Beckett or the hilarious skits of Monty Python. Baumbach’s adaptation comfortably lives in this satirical realm. Through ridiculous, comic exaggeration, the absurdist humor of White Noise pokes fun at the silly lengths we humans go to inject our daily lives with meaning. Throughout his ambitious and playful film, Baumbach hilariously proves that distracting spectacle and consumerism make shallow gods indeed.
To go deeper, the comic exaggeration of White Noise accurately portrays an existential fear rooted within the human heart. I doubt I am the only Christian who occasionally struggles with a sense of my mortality or who tries and fails to make a heaven on this earth.
In the wake of these existential flashes, I endeavor to resist despair or idolatry. Instead, I attempt to redirect these very human feelings towards Christ. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis introduces what others have subsequently called his “argument of desire.” Lewis states, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” In other words, all desires in nature have remedies to satisfy them. It follows that the desire for a redeeming God implies that a redeeming God must exist.
Like Jack, Babette, and Murray, we all must live in the shadow of death; despite our searching, “no experience in this world” can save us from this reality. As we age, we helplessly witness our own unavoidable decline. Much worse, we watch loved ones depart over time. Through it all, we fear and we battle. We struggle to make sense of it all, as Jesus himself did on the cross (“My, God, why have you forsaken me”). These understandable if painful human desires for more than the present world have the potential to point us toward Christ and the hope of the resurrection.
In the meantime, comfort may come from the revelation that we are not responsible for or capable of making God. Witnessing the endearingly human foibles on display in White Noise provides a comic and humbling reminder. As Shakespeare prays through his playful sprite Puck, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”