In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for White Noise, we will discuss the meaning behind the movie’s title.
- Jack Gladney – Adam Driver
- Babette Gladney – Greta Gerwig
- Denise Gladney – Raffey Cassidy
- Heinrich Gladney – Sam Nivola
- Steffie Gladney – May Novila
- Wilder Gladney – Henry Moore/Dean Moore
- Murray Siskind – Don Cheadle
- Mr. Gray – Lars Eidinger
- Winnie Richards – Jodie Turner-Smith
- Elliot Lasher – André Benjamin
Why is the movie called White Noise?
The term “white noise” has a few meanings. There’s the more scientific application that involves sound waves of varying frequencies commingling into a singular sound that’s often associated with static or the whirling of a fan. But it’s also used to describe background noise that’s constant and unvarying. So if you’re in a mall food court and you hear the “white noise” of all the people talking. Or if you stand on a street corner in New York City during the middle of the day, there’s a white noise of traffic. You could even get more poetic with it and describe the 24-hour news cycle as the white noise of 21st century living.
With regard to what we see in the movie, the specter of death, knowledge of our own mortality, could be viewed as a kind of white noise. It’s a constant hum that’s in the back of our heads. “I will die one day. I will no longer exist. The world will go on without me.” This lines up with the Thanatophobia that drives both Jack and Babette.
There’s also an emphasis on consumerism and commercialism. The act of buying things, of ownership and accumulation, has become a white noise that can distract us from all the thoughts of mortality. In that way, the white noise is something we’re looking for that would drown out the voice in our head that’s worried about annihilation.
The movie is based on a Don DeLillo novel of the same name. And in the novel, we get one direct reference to “white noise” followed by some poetic elaboration. It happens during the showdown with Mr. Gray (real name William Mink), in the hotel room. Jack shouts “Plunging aircraft” and watches as Mink suffers from a Dylar-induced trip, hallucinating he’s actually in a plunging aircraft.
I took another step toward the middle of the room. As the TV picture jumped, wobbled, caught itself in snarls, Mink appeared to grow more vivid. The precise nature of events. Things in their actual state. Eventually he worked himself out of the deep fold, rising nicely, sharply outlined against the busy air. White noise everywhere.
“Containing iron, niacin, and riboflavin, I learned my English in airplanes. It’s the international language of aviation. Why are you here, white man?”
“You are very white, you know that?”
“It’s because I’m dying.”
“This stuff fix you up.”
“I’ll still die.”
“But it won’t matter, which comes to the same thing. Some of these playful dolphins have been equipped with radio transmitters. Their far-flung wanderings may tell us things.”
I continued to advance in consciousness. Things glowed, a secret life rising out of them. Water struck the roof in elongated orbs, splashing drams. I knew for the first time what rain really was. I knew what wet was. I understood the neurochemistry of my brain, the meaning of dreams (the waste material of premonitions). Great stuff everywhere, racing through the room, racing slowly. A richness, a density. I believed everything. I was a Buddhist, a Jain, a Duck River Baptist. My only sadness was Babette, having to kiss a scooped-out face.
He put his hands over his crotch, tried to fit himself under the toilet tank, behind the bowl. The intensity of the noise in the room was the same at all frequencies. Sound all around. I took out the Zumwalt. Great and nameless emotions thudded on my chest. I knew who I was in the network of meanings. Water fell to earth in drops, causing surfaces to gleam. I saw things new.
I fired the gun, the weapon, the pistol, the firearm, the automatic. The sound snowballed in the white room, adding on reflected waves.
Notice how much “white” comes up. The air is busy because Jack’s senses are heightened by the drama of what he’s about to do. It’s created a degree of static in the air. The world itself is charged. But then Jack himself is described as this “white man”, pale because he’s dying after exposure to the airborne toxic event. So he’s there to kill Mr. Gray/Mink, but he’s also dying, and both involve “white”. This is the “show don’t tell” way of associating the idea of “white noise” with death. Which also plays into the idea of the Dylar eliminating the fear of death. Which is why Mink says “But it won’t matter, which comes to the same thing.” Death will be reduced to a static in the background of Jack’s life, rather than something unbearably loud.
The paragraph where “things glowed” and he “knew for the first time what rain really was” is just a continuation of the line about “White noise everywhere.” The presence of death in the room intensifies everything else. The literal white noise is a mixture of frequencies, and Jack describes a mixture of beliefs. Buddhism, Jainism, Baptism. It’s the poetic leap from the literal to the metaphorical/existential. But DeLillo comes back to the literal with that description of “the intensity of the noise in the room was the same at all frequencies. Sound all around.” It’s sound and visuals. Sound and visuals and belief. Sound and visuals and belief and emotions. All of these colliding into an existential static that’s akin to a rebirth.
Jack shoots Mink. But then decides to save him. Opting for life over death. For acceptance over denial
Similar things happen in the movie version. There’s a moment when the TV scrambles into static, into that visual white noise. And the very end is Jack and Babette deciding to focus on their life together and enjoy whatever time they have rather than worry about their personal extinctions.
What are your thoughts?
Is there more information about the title that you think should be part of the Colossus Movie Guide for White Noise? Leave a comment below and we’ll consider adding your thoughts to the guide.