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Retreating from History: The Privatization of Nostalgia in Noah Baumbach’s White Noise

Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) was one of the sensations of American literature in the 1980s, establishing its author as one of the leading figures in American postmodern literature. The book also deals satirically with many of the central concerns of the 1980s, providing a striking picture of American life in that decade while exploring period anxieties caused by the rising tide of consumerism, the growing mediatization of reality, and the fear of looming environmental catastrophe. This critical attitude toward its own era might be one reason why White Noise has not been among the artifacts of 1980s culture that have been memorialized in the wave of 1980s nostalgia that has struck American popular culture in the past few years. As it turns out, the release of Noah Baumbach’s film adaptation of the novel on Netflix (itself a key locus of 1980s nostalgia) at the end of 2022 does nothing to change this situation because Baumbach’s adaptation of White Noise is almost completely lacking in nostalgia for the 1980s. In fact, it seems almost entirely uninterested in the 1980s, which it keeps as a setting, but in an oddly generic way that is almost totally free of genuine markers of the period. This lack of interest in the 1980s, however, does not mean that Baumbach’s White Noise is free of nostalgia. It is, in fact, infused with a special sort of postmodern nostalgia that is aimed not at any particular period in the past but at a timeless fantasy of the nuclear family as an enclave apart from history.

1980s Nostalgia and Recent American Popular Culture

Nostalgia for the 1980s is one of the most striking trends in recent American film and television. This phenomenon has a decidedly political dimension, as when the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement implicitly points to an earlier time when things were presumably better. The exact time and nature of this earlier greatness tends to be non-specific, though the figure of Ronald Reagan and the years of his presidency still tend to loom large in conservative nostalgia, something that is ironic given Reagan’s heavy reliance on nostalgia for a time before the supposedly corrosive influence of the 1960s in his own political rhetoric. Here, of course, Reagan was able to draw on a wave of 1950s nostalgia that had been building in American culture through the 1970s, beginning with films such as American Graffiti (1973) and perhaps embodied most memorably in the television series Happy Days (1974–1984). In addition, as Michael Rogin has detailed, the former film actor Reagan tended to rely for his nostalgic visions more on films from the past than on the actual material world of the past1.

In a more general sense, the 1950s nostalgia that was so prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s derived its energies more from memories of the popular culture of the 1950s than of the 1950s themselves. Not surprisingly, the recent wave of nostalgia for the 1980s has had a similar cultural focus. The films and music of the 1980s have been widely evoked in recent popular culture as monuments of a simpler and more innocent time—no doubt partly because so much of the culture (especially in film and television) of the 1980s was already soaked in a similar nostalgia. For example, one of the key markers of recent 1980s nostalgia is Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), in which denizens of a future dystopia find solace through escape into an idealized virtual world that is constructed largely from bits and pieces of the popular culture of the 1980s2.

Netflix has participated extensively in the recent wave of cultural nostalgia for the 1980s, producing a considerable amount of programming in this vein. The series Stranger Things (2016-2023), one of the streaming platform’s biggest hits, is absolutely steeped in nostalgia for the 1980s. In addition to its obvious echoes of 1980s films such as Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) or Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), Stranger Things makes heavy use of 1980s music, both diegetically and in its soundtrack. The series is dominated by younger characters, as nostalgic works often are, but even its older characters are often played by actors (Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine, Sean Astin) who first became known in the 1980s, adding another nostalgic dimension. All in all, the success of Stranger Things has made the series itself a central driving force behind the recent wave of 1980s nostalgia.
In many ways, however, the most interesting case of 1980s nostalgia on Netflix might occur in the 2016 “San Junipero” episode of the series Black Mirror, which began on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2011 but switched to Netflix in 2016. In this award-winning episode, the popular culture of the 1980s is used to help create a computer simulation of an ideal world to serve as a refuge into which aging and infirm citizens of the future can retreat to live happily virtual versions of their younger, healthier selves. Music of the 1980s is particularly crucial to this project, with Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 pop hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” serving essentially as an anthem of this virtual world. “San Junipero,” however, adds an extra level of sophistication by also providing an alternative look at a decidedly darker version of the culture of the 1980s3. Meanwhile, the episode includes a reference to the vampire film The Lost Boys (1987), which has often figured as a focus of 1980s nostalgia. However, a closer look at The Lost Boys shows that this film, despite its hip surface, can also be read as a critique of 1980s consumerism, suggesting that the current wave of 1980s nostalgia is based, not just on cherry-picking the works of the 1980s that support a nostalgic vision of the 1980s, but also on willfully misreading those works to eliminate interpretations that do not support this vision4.

DeLillo’s White Noise was one of the most important works of American literature in the 1980s, even though DeLillo’s novel is probably not a beloved part of anyone’s childhood memories of the decade. Indeed, literary fiction as a whole has played no significant role in the recent wave of 1980s nostalgia. However, it would be especially difficult to derive nostalgia for the 1980s via White Noise, which (despite often being very funny) is extremely anxious about the state of American life in its decade. In some ways, in fact, it is a sort of kinder and gentler anticipation of the searing critique of the calamitous psychic consequences of 1980s materialist greed that would appear a few years later in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), itself later adapted in a somewhat lighter 2000 film that is nevertheless anything but nostalgic for the 1980s. However, the lack of nostalgia for the 1980s in Baumbach’s adaptation of White Noise cannot be attributed simply to an attempt at fidelity to the novel. While DeLillo’s original is interesting largely because of the way it establishes such a distinctive zone of satirical contact with the contemporary reality of its production, Baumbach’s adaptation is distinctive for its lack of any real interest in engaging with the 1980s. Moreover, the film does contain sentimental/nostalgic energies that are lacking in the novel, directing those energies away from the historical world of the 1980s and into a timeless space in the domestic world of the film’s central nuclear family, with a modified version of the novel’s narrator, Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney (played by Adam Driver in the film), as the main point-of-view character at the heart of this family in the film.

The Representation of the 1980s in Baumbach’s White Noise

Fredric Jameson’s work on postmodernism is a perfect (if ironic) starting point for any discussion of the problematic nature of the current wave of 1980s nostalgia, partly because his theorization of postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” was itself originally developed through the 1980s (roughly between his important 1983 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” and his seminal 1991 book Postmodernism). For Jameson’s most important writings on postmodernism, then, the 1980s are the present; moreover, this present is one that he saw at the time as so fundamentally flawed, empty, and broken beneath the weight of late capitalism that it was almost desperate for solutions, including looking nostalgically to its own past for signs of what was perceived to be missing in the present.Thus, a crucial part of Jameson’s vision of postmodern culture is the “nostalgia film,” a terminology he applies to films that stylistically evoke a specific period in the past in a blank, affectless mode that is bereft of the kind of genuine longing for something that has been lost that we typically associate with the emotion of nostalgia. This emotion, for Jameson, is unavailable to postmodern films because of their inability to grasp the historicity of the past (or of the present as the future of the past). The nostalgia film, for Jameson, thus becomes a special form of the “pastiche” that he consistently regards as the crucial stylistic technique of postmodern art: unable to generate a genuinely personal style of their own, postmodern artists, for Jameson, simply borrow from the styles of the past, as if choosing them from a cafeteria menu.

In the case of film, the styles to which Jameson refers are primarily visual, and he argues that the nostalgia film demonstrates “its historicist deficiency by losing itself in mesmerized fascination in lavish images of specific generational pasts” (296). Some of his favorite examples of the nostalgia film are neo-noir films such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), noting the “stylish recuperation” of the American 1930s in the former (19), but arguing that the latter is particularly distinctive because it is set in the present but stylistically evokes the past, producing a “glossy” and “mesmerizing” demonstration, not of our ongoing ability to connect to our past, but precisely the opposite. For Jameson, such nostalgia films speak to the fact that we had (in the 1980s) become so estranged from our present, demonstrating the “enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience” (21).

Despite its obvious fondness for its source material, Baumbach’s White Noise is the virtual opposite of the nostalgia films discussed by Jameson, perhaps especially of Body Heat—and not just because of the fundamentally different nature of the content of the two works. Body Heat is set in the present of the film’s production but self-consciously stylized to look and feel like the past of its forebear from 37 years earlier, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The film version of White Noise, on the other hand,is set 38 years before the release of the film but looks and feels fairly contemporary to the time of its production. Granted, nothing about Baumbach’s White Noise seems jarringly anachronistic relative to its setting in the 1980s. It presents us with clothing, hairstyles, automobiles, televisions, and so on that are perfectly consistent with the 1980s, so that there is no question when the action of the film takes place. Early in the film, Gladney even stipulates that he started the Hitler Studies program sixteen years earlier, in 1968. However, the period nature of the film’s images is not foregrounded stylistically, and there is very little, visually, in the film that shouts “1980s!”

One could argue, of course, that the 1980s simply didn’t have a distinctive look to begin with. It is certainly the case that the recent wave of 1980s nostalgia differs from the nostalgia films discussed by Jameson in that it has not been primarily based on visual memories of the 1980s, relying instead on specific plot motifs and music to establish the time period. However, the plot of the film adaptation of White Noise involves virtually nothing that immediately evokes the 1980s: consumerism, mediatization, and environmental catastrophe remain very contemporary concerns in the 2020s. Meanwhile, the other major tool available to films when evoking time periods of the past is the music of that past time, which can immediately establish a period feel. However, the soundtrack of White Noise seems to have been chosen specifically to avoid any overt evocation of the 1980s (or any other period). Danny Elfman’s original orchestral score shows some vague influence of 1980s electronic music, but it also looks back to earlier periods, giving it a rather timeless quality, while the familiar songs that are heard in the course of the film seem to have intentionally been selected not to evoke the 1980s. The songs of which we hear snippets in the course of the film are generally delivered via diegetic broadcast media of the kind that permeate the world of both the film and the novel. They include such things as Elvis Presley’s “Rubberneckin’” (1969), which a truck driver listens to on the radio in his truck just before he crashes into the train. Most of the songs in the film are heard only briefly as part of The Lawrence Welk Show, which plays on theapparently haunted TV in the motel room of “Mr. Gray” (Lars Eidinger), Babette’s former adulterous lover. These selections, in keeping with the nature of the Welk show, provide an eclectic slice of banalized Americana from a variety of time periods, ranging from “Mack the Knife”—from Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 English adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928)—to other standards, such as the 1917 Vaudeville song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and the 1953 show tune “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads.”5

The film version of White Noise is also able to supplement the novel’s depiction of its characters as being constantly bombarded by media signals through the visual device of including televisions in the set designs of numerous locations during the film. Thus, whether we are in a home, an office, a laboratory, a church, or a store, there always seems to be a television running, even though the characters don’t typically pay much attention to what is on the screen. Moreover, in keeping with the film’s lack of interest in 1980s nostalgia, what we see on the screen never emphasizes particularly beloved programming from the 1980s. We do see very brief snippets of such 1980s programs as Knight Rider (1982–1986) and That’s Incredible! (1980–1984), but those clips from The Lawrence Welk Show are probably the most prominent programming that we see in the film. Meanwhile, another very telling use of programming shown on a television within the film occurs inside the Mini Mart where Gladney is exposed to Nyodene D. A brief shot of a small TV inside the mart reveals that it is showing the classic alien invasion film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), including scenes of destruction that rhyme with the current chaos surrounding the airborne toxic event that the Gladneys are fleeing (see Figure 1). This film itself has considerable value as a nostalgia object—but it evokes the older phenomenon of 1950s nostalgia, not 1980s nostalgia.

Retreating from History: The Privatization of Nostalgia in Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, M. Keith Booker (University of Arkansas), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Jack Gladney in the rain at the Mini Mart, with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers playing inside on the TV.

Finally, the most prominent song in White Noise is the upbeat “New Body Rhumba,” a song written and recorded by the American indie rock band LCD Soundsystem specifically for this film, so that it is certainly not a 1980s song (nor does it sound like one). This song erupts into the soundtrack just as the Gladneys enter the A&P supermarket in the film’s final scene. It can apparently (and inexplicably) be heard in the supermarket as well, initiating a more than seven-minute bravado sequence in which all the store’s customers and employees (including, seemingly, the entire faculty of Gladney’s college) respond to the music with what at first glance appear to be joyful dances that last until the end of the film and even through the end credits (see Figure 2). There’s an apparent communal exuberance to the dancing, which has some of the energy of a flashmob, though it is not particularly well coordinated, with individual dancers tending to do their own things. It also at first seems like this might just be another spectacle of 1980s nostalgia, attempting to demonstrate what bright and happy time that was. Yet the song that drives this scene has a very contemporary feel, and the supermarket looks quite contemporary as well. There is no real sense that this climactic scene is happening in the 1980s, nor is the 1980s setting important at all in the scene. Indeed, the highly entertaining sequence steps outside of social reality altogether, as do all utopian moments in this film. In addition, given the setting (and the way various dancers interact with the commodities in the store), the scene almost looks like a celebration of consumerism—until one listens more closely to the lyrics of the song, which Jason Jeong has aptly described as being “about the capitalist desire for more, more, more.” Indeed, the song functions as a virtual catalog of needs and desires that can never be fully satisfied, ultimately urging listeners to stop fighting it and just “go into the light,” as the film ends with a cut to a black title screen.

Retreating from History: The Privatization of Nostalgia in Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, M. Keith Booker (University of Arkansas), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: The Gladney family dance in the supermarket during the film’s final scene.

Given how much both versions of White Noise focus on the topic of death, “go into the light” at first seems like an imprecation to accept the inevitability of death, in keeping with the longtime association of “going into the light” with entering the afterlife. However, the rest of the song suggests a very different meaning. With its constant repetition of demands for various consumer products, the overall thrust of the song is to urge a surrender, not to death, but to the never-ending desires (and perhaps the spiritual death) of consumerism. “Just give us what we want!” cry the lyrics, give us more, more, more, as an alternative to death, as a way of staving off the end. In this sense, the powerful response of the shoppers to the song is not joyous, but desperate. They are not waving but drowning. Moving as if drugged—or perhaps like marionettes, with consumerism as the puppet master—they respond to this consumerist call because they have all been programmed to respond to it all their lives. And they put all of their energy into the performance, not because shopping makes them happy but because it at least serves as a diversion, distracting them momentarily from the awareness of their own inevitable deaths.

The fact that this final scene in the film retreats altogether from realistic representation mutes its effectiveness as a critique of consumerism. It also suggests that the representational difficulties Jameson associates with the nostalgia films of the 1980s are not only still with us but have, in fact, intensified. The film version of White Noise doesn’t simply retreat into the 1980s due to its inability to fashion representations of the 2020s: it can’t fashion a compelling representation of the 1980s, either. It focuses instead on the private domestic world of a nuclear family and is left, in terms of the public world, with this final nonrepresentational scene of pure performance. It has, in other words, retreated into the realm of the spectacle, precisely in the mode associated by Guy Debord with rampant consumerism in his classic book The Society of the Spectacle (1967).

Spectacle, of course, is precisely what is at stake in those lavish nostalgia films described by Jameson, which transform the past itself into a spectacle, divorcing it from the historical process. These films thus directly illustrate Debord’s argument that the domination of social life by the spectacle alienates individuals from a genuine experience of social life, which is replaced by representations of that experience. In the same way, the spectacle cripples the ability of individuals to experience the authentic flow of history, much as Jameson has seen late capitalism as leading to a loss of any genuine sense of history, contributing to the particular kind of nostalgia that he associates with the postmodern. As Thesis 158 of Debord’s book puts it, “The spectacle, being the reigning social organization of a paralyzed history, of a paralyzed memory, of an abandonment of any history founded in historical time, is in effect a false consciousness of time” (114).

Spectacle is, in fact, a crucial focus of White Noise, both versions of which indicate the way in which reality tends to be received as spectacle via its representations in the media. The very texture of White Noise deals with the confusion between representation and reality that is key to Debord’s discussion of the spectacle. John Frow, discussing the original White Noise as a work of postmodernism, notes, “The world of White Noise is a world of primary representations which neither precede nor follow the real but are themselves real” (421). And Frow is certainly correct that this aspect of the novel marks it as postmodern. However, the implications of the treatment of the relationship between reality and representation in White Noise can perhaps best be understood through an appeal to Debord, for whom the contemporary Western world is informed by the irresistible advance of a consumer capitalism that leads to the commodification of everything, the total triumph of exchange value over use value, and the colonization of reality by images. In this sense, Debord again provides an analysis that is entirely consistent with later visions of postmodernism, such as that put forth by Jameson.

DeLillo’s White Noise gestures toward an analysis of American society that is similar to Debord’s in a number of ways, the most important of which are its insistent focus on the topic of consumerism and its delineation of a 1980s society that is so saturated with media representations that they all blend together to form the white noise of the title. The film gestures toward a similar critique but is not terribly interested in pursuing it. However, while the film also includes much less academic satire than does the novel, it does go beyond the novel in its presentation of the the performative aspects of the teaching of professors such as Gladney and Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) by actually showing us snippets of their classroom work, including one carefully choreographed joint performance that interweaves Siskind’s presentation on Elvis with Gladney’s presentation on Hitler. This well-orchestrated performance is a spectacle in itself, but what is most important about it is the way it suggests parallels between Elvis and Hitler as performers of spectacle, but divorcing them completely from their historical contexts, mashing them together as timeless figures. Meanwhile, in the novel it is clear that Gladney’s teaching of Hitler studies makes Nazism itself the object of a certain nostalgia, something that requires removing Nazism from history altogether, placing special emphasis on performative aspects such as “parades, rallies and uniforms” (25). In short, he emphasizes the ways in which the Nazis used spectacle to further their agenda, something that they themselves documented in films such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), which provides a cinematic account of the large-scale spectacles that accompanied the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg. Gladney also emphasizes this aspect of Nazi power in the film version of White Noise, even including some actual film clips from Nazi rallies in the presentations that we see in the film. There is no sense in either case that Gladney is promoting the ideology of the Nazis, though the two versions of Gladney do seem to regard Hitler and the Nazis somewhat differently. The novel’s (more cynical and less likeable) Gladney is a pure opportunist who simply sees the teaching of Hitler Studies as a route to professional advancement. In addition, it includes a bit of amateur psychoanalysis on the part of Siskind, who concludes that Gladney felt small and weak and so developed Hitler Studies in order to use the figure of Hitler to increase his own sense of “significance and strength” (274). No such analysis appears in the film, where Gladney actually seems to believe that there is something valuable to be learned from the style of Nazism, something that he reflects in his theatrical teaching style. Of course, to teach Hitler in this way requires that the ideology and the historical reality of Nazism be ignored altogether. The film, however, does very little to interrogate Gladney’s irresponsible retreat from history in his teaching—perhaps because the film itself retreats from history.

The Privatization of Nostalgia in Baumbach’s White Noise

Postmodern or not, the effectiveness of DeLillo’s novelas a satirical commentary on the 1980s has been widely recognized. For example, Joseph Dewey argues that DeLillo’s noveljoins a long tradition of American satirists, such as Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Matt Groening. For Dewey, the novel “deploys the full range of satire’s most devastating effects: exaggeration, farce, understatement, juxtaposition, wit, parody, burlesque, irony, sarcasm. In this, White Noise is one of the most accomplished American satires since Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Saul Bellow’s Herzog a generation earlier” (231). Ultimately, he argues that DeLillo’s novel is effective as satire because it is not really about its individual characters but is instead about American society as a whole. One might say almost the opposite about Baumbach’s film. The characters in the film version are more concretely realized than in the novel, partly because we can see them on the screen as brought to life by excellent, well-known actors. As a result, the film would have had to struggle to achieve the broad social focus of the novel without having the strong presence of the individual characters diminish the impact of the satire. In point of fact, though, the film does not undertake this struggle at all but is content to put its focus on the individual characters and in particular on the domestic lives of its central family, greatly diminishing the satirical impact that is found in the novel.

The basic scenarios of the novel and the film seem quite similar, but a closer look shows that the film has made subtle, but significant, adjustments to the makeup of the central family. Gladney occupies somewhat the same role as in the novel, but Driver’s performance tends to make him a more sympathetic figure and less an object of satire. In the film, Gladney also functions much more as a husband and father than as a professor. Gladney’s wife Babette (played by Baumbach’s longtime personal and professional partner Greta Gerwig) is also seen primarily in such private, domestic roles. Jack and Babette stand at the head of a very modern blended family, which is similar in both versions of White Noise, though the children seem slightly older in the film, and the mix is slightly different. In both novel and film, teen daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) is Babette’s by a previous marriage, while teen son Heinrich (Sam Nivola) and pre-teen daughter Steffie (May Nivola) are Jack’s by previous marriages. Youngest son Wilder (Henry Moore) is stipulated to be the product of the marriage of Jack and Babette in the film, whereas in the novel Wilder is somewhat younger and is the product of another of Babette’s previous marriages (there, they have no children in common). As a result, the film suggests Jack and Babette to have been married perhaps 5–6 years, whereas the novel suggests something more like only 2–3 years, a difference that could contribute to the fact that they seem much more emotionally connected to each other in the film. Indeed, the interactions of the various members of the family in the novel are oddly affectless. Thus, the film’s only (implied) sex scene ends with a moment of post-coital closeness and tenderness, while the novel’s only scene of marital sex ends as Gladney retreats into abstract intellectualism, attributing the connection between himself and Babette to the fact that they share everything with each other at the end of each day: “In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now. This is the space reserved for irony, sympathy and fond amusement, the means by which we rescue ourselves from the past” (30).

Meanwhile, as if this oddly intellectualized description of marital intimacy didn’t seem ironic enough, it is also the case that it is based on a total misconception on the part of Gladney. We will learn, in the course of the novel, that Babette most certainly does not share everything with her husband every night, including a foray into adultery that ultimately creates a rift in the marriage that remains unhealed at the end. Tellingly, though, the film is careful to provide a road to reconciliation, signaling its more idealized view of this family unit. Thus, near the end of the film both Jack and Babette are shot (even sharing the same bullet) and go to the hospital together, while only Jack is shot in the novel. This difference is crucial to the film’s desire to provide a space outside of history in which the Gladney family can achieve a kind of domestic bliss that is simply unavailable in the more cynical domestic world of the novel. Going to an emergency clinic together, husband and wife lie side-by-side on their twin hospital beds (see Figure 3). The camera emphasizes a closeup shot of their intertwined hands, and the film’s Jack and Babette now seem closer than ever, despite the recent revelation of her adultery. They are two people who have just shared a life-changing experience, forming a new bond through which they can now serve for each other as bulwarks against the harshly secular world described by the old German nun who confronts them in the clinic. In the novel, on the other hand, Jack goes through this whole experience of getting shot and going to the hospital alone, then goes home alone and ends up sitting in the kitchen alone while Babette sleeps alone upstairs. Shortly afterward (in a development entirely omitted from the film), the machines of modernity intrude into the Gladney garden as young Wilder tricycles into expressway traffic and is almost killed, partly due to parental inattention.

Retreating from History: The Privatization of Nostalgia in Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, M. Keith Booker (University of Arkansas), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Jack and Babette holds hands in the clinic after both being shot by the same bullet.

That hand-holding scene in the clinic is the culmination of a whole series of shots in the film that show small moments of marital intimacy such as hand-holding, back-rubbing, and general touching and nuzzling that subtly emphasize the closeness of the Gladneys. And the film’s attempts to make Jack and Babette seem closer and more important to each other are crucial to its retreat from nostalgia for the 1980s into a longing for a time outside of history altogether, a longing that can be understood with the aid of Jameson’s comments on nostalgia in postmodern culture. The representation of the Gladney home is quite significant in this sense. It’s an older, very traditional home in neighborhood of such homes, situated among large, old trees (see Figure 4). Nothing about the neighborhood seems to point toward the 1980s setting. To an extent, the Gladney home and the whole neighborhood are consistent with the description of them in the novel, but one reason for that is that the novel doesn’t really provide much of a description. About all the novel tells us is that the Gladneys “live at the end of a quiet street in what was once a wooded area with deep ravines. There is an expressway beyond the backyard now, well below us, and at night as we settle into our brass bed the sparse traffic washes past, a remote and steady murmur around our sleep, as of dead souls babbling at the edge of a dream” (4). That expressway is central to the key (nearly tragic) scene with Wilder in the novel, but it is also crucial to the novel’s overall representation of 1980s America as a place where it is increasingly difficult to find traditional, quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods free of the incursions of the modern. Significantly, this expressway does not intrude on the quiet serenity of the Gladneys’ neighborhood in the film, where the neighborhood (like the Gladney home) provides a refuge from modernization. In fact, one might say that it provides a refuge from history where the family can live out a timeless, Norman Rockwell version of domestic life, making the interruption caused by the toxic event all the more meaningful. Importantly, though, the Gladneys in the film are soon able to return to their family sanctuary (whereas the Gladneys of the novel are still faced by that expressway when they return, almost leading to Wilder’s death.

Retreating from History: The Privatization of Nostalgia in Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, M. Keith Booker (University of Arkansas), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Jack Gladney comes up the walkway to the family home.

In the film, we do see some shots suggesting that the Gladneys live in, or at least near, an actual city, complete with rundown areas like the one in which Jack finds “Mr. Gray.” But if this city tilts in the direction of a capitalism-driven Pottersville, the Gladney neighborhood is pure family-friendly Bedford Falls—with no dangerous expressway in sight. Jameson has also described this kind of nostalgia—via his discussion of the original 1972 Godfather film in his now classic essay “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Set mostly in the 1950s (that pivotal decade for all sorts of American nostalgic visions) The Godfather presents, according to Jameson, the Corleone crime family as the locus of a utopian fantasy of collectivity via the notion of traditional family-like connections. In particular, Jameson sees this family-based fantasy ofcommunity as providing images of utopian fulfillment that play a cultural role similar to the one once played by idyllic American small towns, but now lost to history. He thus argues that The Godfather “offers a contemporary pretext for a Utopian fantasy which can no longer express itself through such outmoded paradigms and stereotypes as the image of the now extinct American small town” (Signatures 33). The Gladneys are no Corleones, but Baumbach’s White Noise goes The Godfather one better by attempting to establish a nostalgic utopian space both within a family unit and in a small-town neighborhood space carved out within a more modern, urban space.

Ultimately, DeLillo’s White Noise is about the eighties; Baumbach’s White Noise is about the Gladneys. The film treats essentially all of the same topics as the novel but shifts most of its real emphasis away from issues such as consumerism, mediatization, and environmental catastrophe and into the private realm of the Gladney family. In this sense, White Noise pursues the same interests as the typical Baumbach film. However, the domestic tilt of the film adaptation of White Noise might be indicative of larger phenomena as well, making it both more nostalgic and more divorced from history than were the nostalgia films of the 1980s discussed by Jameson. This change is not surprising. After all, if one accepts Jameson’s view that the lack of historical sense in postmodern culture is a direct consequence of the characteristics of what he (after Ernest Mandel) calls late capitalism, then it only makes sense that a film produced in 2022 would be less able to engage with history than films (or a novel) of the 1980s, thanks to the fact that late capitalism has now metastasized into a more malignant neoliberal form, producing an even more radical disengagement from the historical process than what Jameson was able to observe in the 1980s.


1  Neither version of White Noise is much interested in exploring the electoral politics of the 1980s, though the film is even less so. Reagan is mentioned only once in the novel, as the object of a psychic’s vaguely political prediction in a tabloid that the ghost of John Wayne would soon begin sending Reagan foreign policy advice from beyond the grave (141). Reagan is also mentioned just once in the film, this time in reference to the fact that he was almost cast as Rick in Casablanca.

2  On the nostalgic use of the 1980s in Ready Player One, see Nordstrom.

3  For a more detailed discussion of the role of 1980s nostalgia in “San Junipero,” see Daraiseh and Booker.

4  See Latham for a nuanced discussion of the somewhat contradictory representation of consumerism (especially with regard to youth culture) in The Lost Boys (61–67). See also Booker and Daraiseh for a discussion of the use of The Lost Boys in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) in a way that critiques 1980s nostalgia.

5  The Lawrence Welk Show itself is practically timeless, having run continuously in broadcast or syndication over the period 1951–1982. Much of its appeal was to older audiences, who enjoyed the nostalgia effect of its old-fashioned musical performances. Indeed, versions of the show are to this day shown on various PBS stations, especially during pledge drives, when its nostalgia value is considered a major asset. The show is not mentioned in the novel.

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