White Noise Noah Baumbach (2022; USA) Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig
viewed 20th Dec 2022 Tyneside Cinema; ticket: £12.25
His Girl Friday Howard Hawks (USA: 1940) Cary Grant Rosalind Russell
viewed 22nd Dec 2022 at Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; ticket: £7.00
then and now
I came out of Noah Baumbach’s ‘White Noise’ bored disaffected and understanding something about the death of Cinema.
I came out of Hawks ‘His Girl Friday’ in high spirits happy understanding that I’d been party to classic Cinema in full flow.
Hawks’ movie forms itself about the proposition of a strategic manipulation. As the title suggests, the premise of the script is Walter’s intention to shape Hildy’s behaviour in accordance with his own preference: that she remain a newspaper reporter working for him. Hildy in the embrace of the finely crafted script and scenario, has to remain blithely unaware of how her behaviour is being influenced. ‘His Girl Friday’ is an intense situational comedy in which Cary Grant’s amused detachment pervades the action, imbuing it with a patriarchal omniscience that is almost God-like (in this era newspaper editors like Walter were major deity to their employees), but which is never malignant. Grant’s intervention in human affairs is justified by persuading Hildy to stick to her true nature of being an all American go-getter, a successful player in a competitive occupation rather than doubling down after an emotional disappointment (with Walter! Though this doesn’t play out hard in the script – Walter’s motivation, as remote as he is, appears instrumental – not to lose his best reporter) and settling for marriage and 2.4 kids.
Hawks’ movie never deviates from its basic premise that all the events in the script are mediated through the continuous interplay between Walter’s devious ‘disguised’ intentions and Hildy’s responses as her reporter’s instincts overwhelm her wifely inclinations.
And thereby hangs the manic nature of ‘My Girl Friday’s’ comedy. Plot and sub-plots dovetail in the newsroom: the immanent execution of a mentally ill man, local pork barrel politics, the escape of the condemned man and Hildy’s proposed marriage to Bruce. All feed into the script’s cooking pot creating an energised riot of verbal slapstick to rival the Marx Brothers. Rosalind Russel’s Hildy with her fast talking ripostes and repartee performs like a Doppelganger for Groucho himself.
Directing ‘His Girl Friday’ Hawkes adheres (well more or less) to the classical Greek theatrical unities: action – place – time. The action is continuous and for the most part takes place in the news room overlooking the prison where the condemned man will be hanged in the morning; the events take place over one night. ‘His Girl Friday’ is a theatrical construct as might be expected from its provenance as a Broadway play but Hawks superb direction marks it off as a movie well distanced from the conventions of the stage. (unlike many British films of this era which are in main archly theatrical)
To move away from ‘Girl Friday’s’ theatrical mould Hawks decided to work up one particular element of dramatic presentation: pacing. ‘His Girl Friday’ is paced in a manner that is filmic and outside of the norm theatrical production. The overall pacing of the action is fast, up-beat, but when the plot thickens the pace quickens accelerating the action exponentially and energising a supercharged high rev rate of ‘line’ delivery that calls to mind the climax of Duck Soup (a film which surely Hawks must have looked at). Multiple peaks of accelerated dialogue between the main parties create a chaotic cacophony that lifts the film onto the plateau of the absurd, only understandable by being anchored into the governing thematic of manipulation. These high intensity dialogue scenes were pulled off in one take without sound or picture splicing, relying on the disciplined rehearsed practice of the players and director.
Hawks’ movie represents a triumph of scripted logic. From the beginning it is clear where the movie’s going. It’s a bus with its destination written large on the front roller board. Hawks’ strength lies in his understanding of the situation with its manipulation thematic which he follows through with unwavering acuity. Today a director would perhaps feel ideologically constrained to script the last word for Hildy, her part re-written so that Walter gets his come-uppance. I think that this misses a point. As suggested although Walter is represented as a man, Walter’s part as directed by Hawks and played by Grant, is actually construed as an affable deity of the ingratiating sort beloved by Hollywood. Walter in a sense represents the hand of fate. Interesting to note that in the original script of “His Girl Friday’ Hildy’s part was in fact a male lead. Hawks decided that switching the gendering of the part would lend an extra tensional dynamic to the play out.
‘His Girl Friday’ is adapted from Ben Hecht’s Broadway play ‘The Front Page’; ‘White Noise’ is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Don DeLillo.
Noah Baumbach’s movie is the antithesis of the classical unities. It is a vast sprawling movie that moves different types of action though discrete zones of time and space. It’s a post modernist conceit. A product of contemporary artistic sensibility and also being in some ways an analogous rendering of contemporary life experience. The theme that one can extract from the shifting focus of the disparate story lines are the emotions of fear and insecurity expressed through the travails of two main protagonists: Babette and Jack.
In contrast to ‘His Girl Friday’ Noah Baumbach’s script has little cohesion: it comprises one thing after another. The different strands of action: the Hitler expert strip, the fear of death motif, the down home family strand, the environmental destruction sequence, the drug that assuages fear of dying strip, are connected through the characterisation but they don’t intertwine; they are simply butted together like a series of disparate text messages received on a mobile phone.
Baumbach’s script lacks one of the defining elements of drama: tension. The script lacks tension as each of the separate story strands simply peters out as anticlimax. Perhaps this lack of tension reflects Baumbach’s failure to transpose DeLillo’s novel into film. The novel is written exclusively in the first person; it is Jack’s take on his life; the tensions are generated by the expression of Jack’s true feelings as opposed to what happens to him and the way other people see things. All that is left in Baumbach’s scenario are anticlimaxes. As a result Baumbach’s script very quickly starts to run on empty, becoming listless and dull.
Films for the times. ‘Girl Friday’ is a film structured very much of its time. It reflects an era defined by an hierarchic ethos and where the typical features of popular entertainment forms were an expressive singularity in design which was delivered by both social and psychological mechanistic devices. A characteristic theme whether output as novel or film, was often supplied by the murder/gumshoe genre. These films were tightly scripted products that comprised the most part the development of particular forces set in motion following a provocation – such as a murder. Whilst the background of these types of entertainment might burn in some level of social observation (as in Chandler’s novels) this was not central to the thrust of the work which was to sustain its invoked tensions to the last frame or word. They were like fairy tales to provide a completion for the audience, in a way that ‘life’ itself never has.
‘White Noise’ too reflects its temporal provenance. A post-modernist arts ethos situate within a cultural matrix now defined and substantiated by the smart phone. Attention and social relations remarked by diffusion, distraction, interruption multiplicities. A typical product of the era is the TV series comprising multi-episodic dramas based about procedural/ espionage/fantasy/historical themes. A defining feature of these products is that although they usually have a mechanistic play out, the plot line is used as coat hanger for attaching multiple sub plots revolving about personal issues family issues historical political social issues, enabling the episodes to segue into keystone of the narrative.
The problem with film is that it does not have a multi-episodic structure: it has _+ two hours. Noah Baumbach takes the tropes of post-modernism – incompleteness – discontinuities – diffusion – but uses them ( as most Hollywood directors do) simply as a formula to contrive a production, without giving attention to the psycho-social underpinnings of the form. The result is a failed movie trapped within its formulaic externalities unable to express an internalisation of its subject.