Friday, November 10, 2023

Notes on Film: Cum on Feel the (White) Noise

 by Anthony King

We'll get wild, wild, wild.

Is it really necessary to live every day like it's our last? For a long time I thought so, but, you know, I grew up. Having finally seen Noah Baumbach's latest film, though, got me thinking. And then, of course, there's the lyrics in the song “Non-Stop” from Hamilton: “Why do you write like you're running out of time? / Write day and night like you're running out of time? / Every day you fight, like you're running out of time.” More in a bit.
Since I appeared on the podcast this week, I've already stolen the thunder from my column. Allow me, if you will, to write about a television miniseries. For the past three years I've been slowly working my way through Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. It feels like such a cold weather book that I'll be going back to it as soon as I finish the book I'm currently reading. To gear up for this momentous occasion Bobbie and I started watching Tom Harper's BBC miniseries of War and Peace (2016) starring Lily James as Natasha, James Norton as Andrei, and Paul Dano as Pierre. Initially I thought watching a screen adaptation would help me keep all the names and characters straight. I was sorely mistaken. Nevertheless, it's a gorgeous and epic adaptation broken up into eight parts. As of this writing we're only through the first two parts, but I find the story fascinating, the characters either totally lovable or absolutely despicable, and the historical aspect enthralling. It feels very much like a BBC miniseries in a way that words can't describe, but if you've ever seen one you know exactly what I'm talking about. The battle scenes are shockingly violent, the score by Martin Phipps is the only thing I've been listening to lately, and the performances are to die for. Dano gives an interesting take to Pierre, but ultimately one that I came to love quickly. Norton as Andrei is powerful and sexy. Lily James as Natasha is adorable. And then you have a slew of well-known actors filling out the massive cast: Jack Lowden, Jessie Buckley, Tom Burke, Jim Broadbent, Callum Turner, Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, and Brian Cox. If you're at all interested in Tolstoy's novel or the history of Russia, give Norton's adaptation of War and Peace and spin on Prime.
Now to the topic at hand. When I was working as a youth pastor the church I worked at did a Sunday series based on a book about living every day like it's your last. The premise behind it was well-meaning, and I suppose it inspired people for the eight weeks we did it to be better people. I remember sitting in a staff meeting and the pastor asked each of us what we would do if we had 30 days to live. I spouted off some bullshit answer to appease my boss, but in my head I was thinking I'd probably have the weirdest sex imaginable in all the places you're not supposed to have sex; drink the most expensive scotch in the world, and lots of it; maybe get a tattoo on my weiner; and more dumb (but probably typical last-days-on-earth) shit like that. Since then I hadn't thought much about the question of living every day like it's our last. For better or worse, like most of us, I've just been trying to survive.
But then I watched Noah Baumbach's White Noise (2022). By no stretch of the imagination is this a “bad” movie, and I think most people would agree. It's definitely an outlier, though, in the filmography of a writer/director that includes titles like Kicking and Screaming (1995), The Squid and the Whale (2005), Frances Ha (2012), and Marriage Story (2019). Baumbach is known for – and is at his best when – writing about real life struggles. Kicking and Screaming is about that no-man's land after college. Squid/Whale is about the effects of divorce on kids. Frances Ha is about a young woman living a romanticized artist's life before reality hits. Marriage Story is (again) about divorce and its effects on the couple splitting up. As I stated on the podcast this week, more than any other filmmaker's body of work, Noah Baumbach's charts perfectly the growth of an artist and a human being. K&S was written by a young man in that period of life during your early twenties when you don't know what the hell to do with your life. And then we get to White Noise.
If I were to live my life every day as if I would die tomorrow maybe I'd be doing things a little differently. I'm not saying I'd start every morning by chugging a Four Loko enema straight from a donkey’s asshole followed by a fat, crooked rail of that booger sugar off the spine of a scoliosis patient. First of all, I plan on dying sober. Second of all, the thought of snorting anything makes my sinuses immediately fill up. But maybe I'd call or write letters to everyone I know and tell them how much I love them. (I love you all.) Maybe I'd wrack up insane credit card debt and travel the world with my family. Or maybe I'd finally start that creative project I've been putting off for years. (Actually there are several, but let's not get into that right now.) You know, we did go through a global pandemic recently that caused many of us to reassess how we live. Several people started businesses. Some completely changed their lifestyle for the better. And there are those that actually tackled that creative project. I look at White Noise as Baumbach's version of that.

You may say White Noise is Baumbach's blank check movie. After all the critical and general acclaim garnered by Marriage Story, I'm sure Netflix called Noah and gave him free reign (or the Netflix version of free reign) for his next project. While White Noise is certainly the outlier in his filmography, it still fits perfectly in the growth chart of Baumbach. It's big and audacious and mixes in genre elements never before seen in a Baumbach film. Yet at its core is a simple premise; the kind of premise that Baumbach normally writes. White Noise is simply about a middle-aged man who is faced with familial and worldly turmoil. The pandemic affected every single person, but what has really stood out to me is how it affected intimate relationships. Your relationship either came out of the pandemic stronger than before or weaker. So many of our friends went through divorces. On the flip side, so many of our friends grew closer to their partners and spouses. At its core, White Noise is about the test of a marriage.
While the movie can be broken down to simple terms, it's still big and brash. It's weird. It's insanely different from anything Baumbach has ever done. And the longer it sits with me the more I love it. It'll never be one of my favorites in a filmography with four five-star movies, but White Noise sits comfortably in the middle with four stars. It's the work of a man who threw everything he had at a project because he was terrified he may never get to make another movie ever again. It's the perfect example of living every day like it's your last. Even if White Noise isn't your cup of tea, I believe there's loads of inspiration to be found there. Now let's see if I do something about it.

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