What is America?
White Noise and the disintegration of the American Dream
Kafka wrote a book on America without ever having visited there and basing his visions of the country on the books that came his way. Having never visited America neither but being exposed to American media from a very young age, a composite view America exists in my mind, which is far different from the reality of it.
What is America? On one level, America as the kingdom of dreams is the idea that's sold everywhere. Opulence is the middle name of every American and the pristine, manicured American suburbia is what every middle-class person around the world wants to emulate. America is glitz and glamour, where chewing a toothpick and wearing a cowboy hat is symbolic of masculinity and it is the absolute center of the world: why else would aliens target America and then it's the loci of all modern day gods and superheroes? An alternate picture exists hidden in plain sight in the plumbings of reddit and twitter, of crazy hospital bills, no worker rights whatsoever, a crumbling society outside the moat of billionaires an image of a religious, conservative society that's nothing like the liberal idea of America and the American Dream.
Watching Noah Baumbach's White Noise based on Don DeLillo's novel of the same name, fleshes out the disparities between my imaginations of America as someone who has never been there and that of a top American dramaturgist in great form. The novel inspired a snapshot of images while reading it, especially the “The most photographed barn in America” or mind-bending line that predicted the future in 1985“In the future, data is everything”, though both of these are omitted from the story line, there are new additions, like the scene inspired by Apocalypse Now's opening brings in a new meaning to the source material, with Vietnam war PTSD replaced by the stresses of American consumerism and the impending fear of death that it helps mask. While lacking the literal acuity of the book, the movie wraps itself with the complexities that can be reached through filmmaking, the fact that the movie got made is a proof in itself as the White Noise was especially famous for not being “filmable”. Noah Baumbach as the film's screenwriter delivers the literary goods with dense writing aided by terrific performances and cinematography. It's a pity that the movie has been completely snubbed at all major awards this year, as it sits on the same level of ingenuity as Everything, Everywhere All at Once. But that's not a cause of concern, as I am sure that this movie will stand the test of time by being relevant, as it needs another global scale meltdown to truly appreciate this movie.
White Noise deals with contradiction between real and the imagined, showing the disturbed American as the focal point of its story. It's a vital viewpoint, once a decent living standard is attained and all the luxuries of life have morphed into necessities, what becomes of the human? Will life be some kind of paradise or will we be plagued by the same sense of ennui and purposelessness that propels us in the pursuit of material riches to begin with? The answer to this though obvious is often lost in the titillation of consumerism, in the hope that there is a product out there which will quench and absolve us from the dread and loneliness of existing. This is no better demonstrated by Dylar, the fictional, experimental medicine that is supposed to subdue one's fear of death, which Greta Gerwig's character Babette is constantly using throughout the movie. Dylar is the stand in for our next purchase, that glimmering item in the shopping carts of our minds, one which obfuscates our real standing as a living, breathing and decaying beings.
In the context of the 2023 Ohio train derailment which bears an eerie resemblance to the Air Borne Toxic Event from the movie, White Noise is more relevant than ever, both in America and the rest of the world that is permanently hooked to America through its news and culture. It's a movie that shows a rare glimpse into the weaknesses of utopia, that there's no rainbow at the end of the hamster wheel of development. What is America? Its our individual hopes and dreams mixed with desire and longing for something that's beyond the material world, where abstractions are framed as certainties. But we know deep inside, there are no answers but yet, we still keep buying.