It is awards season for movies and TV, and since I had a modest career in the entertainment industry, I still receive many “screeners” in the mail. Screeners are either digitally delivered or snail-mailed DVDs of current movies that are vying for much-coveted awards.
This year’s crop of award-“worthy” films have not inspired me enough to walk across my living room and insert the DVDs into my player. I cannot even muster the energy to tap a few keys on my laptop to have the movies digitally delivered to me.
Then, on a particularly cold and stormy Saturday, I walked over to the growing stack of screeners and picked a film at random, sort of a screener version of Russian roulette.
“White Noise” is best described as a comedy with tragic relief. It is a strange, black comedy that feels like a scientific experiment, where the creators blended the nihilistic sensibilities of the Coen Brothers with the rapier satire of American life that Evelyn Waugh was so keen on capturing.
Set in a mythical small college in a mythical small town somewhere in America, the story revolves around a dour college professor, played by Adam Driver, who, although he has found a professional “niche” in Hitler studies, is filled with self-doubt and an obsessive fear of death. His obsession is made all the worse because his wife has an even greater fear of the Grim Reaper.
None of the professor’s colleague’s share his dread of the inevitable, but all march lockstep in a hyper-secular spiritual void. No one claims to be overtly atheistic, but their complete lack of intellectual interest in the spirituality of man or the universe, especially in lieu of what transpires in the plot, would make it hard to categorize any of the characters as even remotely agnostic.
Whether the writer of the original book the movie is based on or the filmmakers who adapted it intended this movie to be a commentary of the void in human existence when God is removed, the results are evident.
The closest thing to philosophical curiosity is when a professor of some kind of popular culture studies waxes endlessly on the “spiritual” meaning in every action sequence in every American action film ever made.
The death-obsessed professor and his wife constantly quibble over who should die first, since neither wants to live without the other. It is perverse, but strangely endearing. Then the specter of death looms large in the form of a toxic chemical cloud from a nearby train derailment. In true Coen-Brothers-meets-Evelyn-Waugh style, this disaster is the backdrop for the best comedy in this film.
Refugees in a government-run evacuation center, the professor and his wife worry about being exposed to lethal doses of the toxic cloud while their teenage son goes unnoticed by them, organizing fellow refugees like a young Hitler might do — and doing so unnoticed by his Hitler expert father.
The crisis passes, sort of. The cloud of poison dissipates, but the professor is now worried that he was lethally exposed, and it will eventually kill him. He is diverted from his own fear of mortality by his wife’s manic obsession. Her phobia has gone so far that she is taking a “miracle” drug that promises to relieve the fear of death but instead turns her into a shell of her former self.
Thinking the mysterious man who supplies the drugs is having an affair with his wife, more weird black comedic elements follow.
Through it all, the professor and all his colleagues drone constantly within the confines of their own disciplines. They endlessly analyze everything — and understand nothing.
“White Noise” may be a world devoid of God, but it is not a world without a temple. The local grocery store — which is the reason this film should win an Oscar for Best Art Direction — is a bright, colorful collection of all the processed and artificially flavored foods one might desire. It is within the confines of these walls that the characters seem to find comfort and a sense of spiritual connection.
It is a film whose characters have “educated” themselves into incoherence, becoming a fable for our times. Maybe this was the intent of the filmmakers, maybe it was just some kind of cosmic accident, but however it came to be, “White Noise” is an interesting take on the old saying that if God did not exist, human beings would have to create him.
The human beings encountered in this film have built a world without the divine in it. Their attempts to apply meaning result in just a lot of white noise.