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Forget "Barbie", See "White Noise"

Peter Tonguette

Among the most ominous recent examples of our cultural collapse was the extreme popularity of the movie Barbie. No motion picture earned more money at the domestic box office in 2023 than this Mattel-sanctioned live-action elaboration of the life and times of a fashion doll dreamt up by Ruth Handler towards the end of the Eisenhower administration and popular, in various incarnations, with American girls ever since.

  In fairness, director and co-writer Greta Gerwig cannot be faulted simply for finding cinematic interest in a cheap plastic toy. The detritus of pop culture is a perfectly worthwhile movie subject. In the 1950s and ’60s, the director and ex-cartoonist Frank Tashlin surveyed the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary America—comic books in Artists and Models, advertising in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Jayne Mansfield’s chest in The Girl Can’t Help It—and produced a series of masterpieces. Tashlin is commonly described as a satirist, but in a classic account of his work, the British critic Ian Cameron noted the filmmaker’s affection for what he was purportedly parodying. “The world may be unbalanced and full of false values, but even the falseness can be amusing,” Cameron wrote. “Tashlin seems from his films to be a man who derives boundless enjoyment from modern life, from all its extravagances and perversities.”

  By contrast, Gerwig wants to have it both ways. In the manner of Tashlin, she indulges in the synthetic pleasures of the brand. Yet she also undermines Barbie as a legitimate object of girlish affection. Unlike the truly subversive Tashlin, who reveled in the crassness of his cinematic world, Gerwig lures audiences into the theater by appealing to residual fondness for a piece of plastic but then blasts them with propaganda.

  As it happens, Gerwig is the longtime companion (and recent spouse) of fellow filmmaker and frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach, with whom she co-wrote Barbie. When it was announced that Baumbach was writing and directing an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise—and Gerwig co-starring as the protagonist’s wife—I had every reason to expect that it would be as critical of Reagan-era suburban life as was its literary antecedent. DeLillo is a formidable figure, but as a work of fiction, White Noise has all the faults of mid-level Vonnegut. The characters are weighed down with cartoonish attributes (including academic jobs in the fields of Hitler Studies and Elvis Studies), and their habits and possessions catalogued in interminable inventories.

  “The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts,” DeLillo writes at one point; “There was a white can labeled canned peaches. There was a white package of bacon without a plastic window for viewing a representative slice,” he writes at another. These inventories are presented without comment—as though no comment was needed, since sophisticated readers would simply know to scoff.

  Though it came and went without a stir when it was released by Netflix in the fall of 2022, the movie White Noise had none of these faults—and none of the limitations and evasions of Barbie.

To a degree he probably does not even recognize, Baumbach was fortunate in being unable to find a cinematic correlate to DeLillo’s prose. The characters—Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Gerwig), their horde of children born to various combinations of spouses—are permitted to exist without explicit authorial comment. This apparent bug of movies—the absence of an author to tell you what to think about the characters—makes the Gladneys more lovable than in the sarcastic novel.

  Ennobled by Driver’s warm, resonant voice, Jack becomes a calm, helpful husband and dutiful, dorky dad and stepdad. For her part, Babette evolves into an appealing amalgamation of Goldie Hawn’s dizzy distractedness, Dee Wallace Stone’s maternal care, and Gerwig’s own big-boned awkwardness. (Her character’s poofy hair and loose-fitting sweats befit the actress’s physique as well as the period.) Adopting the curious, observant camerawork and authentically congested overlapping dialogue of Robert Altman,

Baumbach deposits us into the glorious madness of the Gladney household. People, many of them little, are constantly moving about, reaching for something in the kitchen, reporting on something seen on the television, peering out of the attic, or sitting on the roof, talking over each other, talking back (respectfully) to parents. Jack and Babette oversee the mayhem like benevolent lords. Although they reside in a college town, and Jack peppers his conversation with references to his arcane field, the couple seem closer to Steven and Elyse Keaton on Family Ties than to any actual married academic couple in the real world in 2024.

  Their world is one of abundance: leafy, overgrown streets; the Gladneys’ big, shambling house; their boxy, two-toned Chevrolet station wagon; the bounteous A&P grocery store. Even the clothing worn by the actors is busy: colorful, patterned, layered, baggy, substantial. This is a movie packed with stuff—much of it mass-produced, all of it prominently branded. But while DeLillo scoffed at the material world of the ’80s, Baumbach, who was born in 1969, cannot help but revel in it. When the grocery cart-armed characters cruise through the supermarket, we and they cannot help but be mildly intoxicated by the monuments to pleasant, functional capitalism that surround them: rows of Campbell’s soup cans, Tide detergent boxes, and Heinz ketchup bottles.

Unlike the toyland in Barbie, though, the town and its things in White Noise have the quality of a lived-in memory. This is how we once dressed, what we once bought, how we once thought. The film is driven by Jack and Babette’s anxiety over losing these things, which to them are precious. “Let’s enjoy the aimless days while we can,” Jack says at one point; “I hope it lasts forever,” Babette says later.

  In an early scene that sets the tone for what follows, Babette insists she would rather die than be left alone without Jack, which leads Jack to insist upon the same thing. When change comes to the Gladneys’ world, it does not purify but corrupts. A so-called “airborne toxic event” follows the accidental collision of a truck with a barreling train that, upon impact, leaks the noxious stuff it is carrying across the land. In one of the most striking ironies of modern movies, White Noise was filmed largely in northeastern Ohio—roughly the same area where, in February 2022, an actual toxic train spill occurred in East Palestine.

  Jack denies or deflects the importance of the airborne toxic event until it becomes unavoidable. Whenever one of his precocious children announces some latest phenomenon associated with the disaster—that the billowing cloud is drifting this way or that way, that symptoms of exposure have changed (sweaty palms give way to shortness of breath)—Jack tries to argue his way out of the situation. “It won’t come this way,” he says, willing the world to bend to his desires. “It just won’t.” The Gladneys flee their homestead only due to mandatory evacuation. The scenes of the family navigating the nightmare of a chemical spill managed by bureaucrats—complete with a quarantine camp and crazy, paranoid, listless evacuees—function as a parody of the real-life pandemic (still ongoing in the summer of 2021, when the movie was made).

  Like Pandora’s box, the airborne toxic event, once unleashed, cannot be undone. When Jack unwittingly comes into contact with hazardous fallout, he must reckon with the reality he has evaded for so long: his aimless days will end, and nothing lasts forever. The stuff that makes up the airborne event toxic will live longer than he will. Trying to suppress her own knowledge of impending doom, Babette grows ever more dependent on a fictitious psychotropic drug named Dylar. Her addiction consumes Jack not because he is a suspicious spouse but because he is such a decent one—he cannot accept that his bubbly wife is a drug addict, and he resolves to stop her.

  Bracingly, Baumbach declines to present the complications in the Gladneys’ once idyllic life as a form of moral growth. “It’s comforting to know the supermarket hasn’t changed since the toxic event,” says Jack’s friend Murray (Don Cheadle). It’s a funny line but also a true one. The movie ends with a firm embrace of all that might, at first glance, have seemed artificial: the credits roll while the actors perform a dance routine in the A&P. Following the sort of ordeal shown in the movie, who would not seek refuge among the produce, meats, and bright packaged goods?

  Just as the “comedy of remarriage” dramatizes the unsexy truth that sometimes a couple belongs together, White Noisemakes an apparently reactionary case that sometimes a mild suburban existence is the best that can be expected or attained.

  Amid all of the attention Gerwig and Baumbach are receiving for Barbie, why has no one leapt to the defense of White Noise—including its makers? Why is Gerwig herself not reminding her adoring audiences of the movie she just made a year earlier? Perhaps she is sheepish about the obvious parallels to East Palestine, which the Biden administration and its handmaidens in the media obligingly ignore or downplay. Or maybe this filmmaking power couple recognizes that they accidentally made a movie that, in presenting the happy, prosperous mid-80s as a kind of Shangri-La, tacitly and entirely unintentionally argues for making America great again.


Peter Tonguette’s work frequently appears in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and National Review.


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