November was a big month for Don DeLillo. The Library of America published “Don DeLillo: Three Novels of the 1980s,” and Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of one of those novels, “White Noise,” opened theatrically. Opening Dec. 2 at the Kendall Square, it starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 30.
“White Noise” (1985) is just the third of DeLillo’s 17 novels to make it to the screen. The first was “Cosmopolis” (novel, 2003; film, 2012), followed by “Never Ever” (2016), based on “The Body Artist” (2001). For anyone who knows DeLillo’s fiction, this relative rarity is both surprising and not surprising.
The not-surprising part has to do with the nature of DeLillo’s writing. Maybe no American novelist, living or dead, so unerringly balances dread and hilarity. “White Noise” is a case in point. Its ostensible subject, “an airborne toxic event,” is horrific. Yet much of the novel is an extremely funny send-up of academe. Its hero, Jack Gladney, teaches “Hitler studies” at the College-on-the-Hill. Adam Driver plays Gladney in the movie. “Hitler studies”? Dread and hilarity. “College-on-the Hill”? A different sort of dread, a different sort of hilarity.
Maintaining that balance between the dreadful and hilarious is a matter of tone. DeLillo is a master of it. Tone, however, is not something movies are good at.
What movies are good at, and have in common with novels, are plot and dialogue. Plot has always been, at best, an incidental consideration for DeLillo: more excuse than engine. As regards dialogue, his characters tend to talk at right angles to each other. You can see (or hear) how well this might contribute to hilarity and dread both. The dialogue is memorable, but at least in part that’s because it’s not how readers, or moviegoers, are accustomed to dialogue working.
“Cosmopolis” is a case in point. It has a knockout cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliet Binoche, Samantha Morton, Paul Giamatti, Mathieu Amalric (who stars in “Never Ever,” it’s a small world, isn’t it?). More important, it has a highly simpatico director in David Cronenberg, who also wrote the script. But the dialogue just doesn’t play.
So that’s the not-surprising part. The surprising part is how often film figures in DeLillo’s work. He’s even had an original screenplay produced. “Game 6″ (2005) stars Michael Keaton as a New York playwright who passes up his play’s opening night to watch the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Since the Keaton character is a Red Sox fan, we once again have dread and hilarity. Directed by Michael Hoffman, the movie doesn’t work much better than Bill Buckner’s glove did. Robert Downey Jr. does have fun as a famously harsh drama critic, sort of John Simon meets Tony Stark.
DeLillo’s best “screenwriting” is in his novels. He knows the movies inside out and uses that knowledge to excellent effect. The protagonist-narrator of DeLillo’s first novel, “Americana” (1971), announces that he’s glad “I had not asked anyone to come to the movies with me. This was religion and it needed privacy.” Religion, yes, but in his novels DeLillo again and again asks readers to join him in the dark.
There’s Bucky Wunderlick, the very Dylanesque narrator-protagonist of DeLillo’s third novel, “Great Jones Street” (1973). “I’m troubled by movie dreams,” Bucky confesses. “Glamorous faces appear and disappear, all the great names. . . . Movies are dreams, pyramids, great rivers of sleep. The great and the glamorous, their legendary Sphinx-like profiles.”
The mother of the hero in “Ratner’s Star” (1976), DeLillo’s fourth novel, would understand. “The obsessive moviegoing of Faye’s childhood and adolescence had been interrupted only by childhood itself, adolescence itself. Her extravagant attraction to movies was almost an act of violence.”
(“Act of Violence,” as DeLillo knows perfectly well, is a pretty good 1948 thriller, directed by Fred Zinnemann, about a revenge-crazed former POW. It stars Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, and Janet Leigh. Hold on to her name.)
Faye might just as well be the mother of the protagonist of DeLillo’s sixth novel, “Running Dog” (1978). “Moll began to feel that special kind of anticipation she’d enjoyed since childhood — life in the movies. It was an expectation of pleasure like no other. . . . And how was it possible that bad, awful, god-awful movies never seemed to betray the elation and trust she felt in the seconds before the screen went bright? The anticipation was apart from what followed. It was permanently renewable, a sense of freedom from all the duties and conditions of the nonmovie world.”
The nonmovie world (what a concept!) radically impinges on the characters in “Running Dog.” The novel’s MacGuffin is a home movie shot in the Führerbunker as Berlin was falling to the Soviets. (That sound you hear is Jack Gladney’s wildly beating heart.) What the home movie shows turns out to be one of the great imaginative flourishes in post-war American fiction. You’d never guess what it turns out to be. Once you know, it seems as inevitable as night following day, or dread going along with hilarity.
DeLillo has a knack for describing imaginary movies. “Underworld” (1997), his magnum opus, is a novel with many set pieces. One of the mightiest concerns a screening of “the legendary lost film of Sergei Eisenstein, called ‘Untenwelt,’ recently found in East Germany” (the date is the mid-’70s). That film gives the novel its title. The screening, held at Radio City Music Hall, is that most oppressive of social occasions, A Certified Cultural Event. “Just a movie for godsake and a silent movie at that and a movie you never heard of until the Times did a Sunday piece. But this is how the behavioral aberration, once begun, grows to lavish panic.”
“Underworld” also has memorable passages about Robert Frank’s Rolling Stones documentary, “CS Blues” (1972), and the Zapruder footage of the JFK assassination. The latter isn’t a surprise, since DeLillo’s best-known work is probably his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald, “Libra” (1988).
What may be the movie-est DeLillo novel is “Point Omega” (2010). Its hero, Jim Finley, is a documentary filmmaker, and the novel begins and ends with a tour de force description of Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho.” That 2006 installation at New York’s Museum of Modern Art slowed down Hitchcock’s film to two frames per second, instead of the standard 24, making for a nearly day-long running time.
“What he was watching seemed pure film, pure time,” DeLillo writes. “The broad horror of the old gothic movie was subsumed in time.”
The prospect of actually seeing “Psycho” screened that slowly sounds even more terrifying than the actual movie. But mediated through DeLillo’s writing the experience becomes transfixing.
“In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.”
What Finley’s looking at is Perkins. What Perkins is looking at is, yes, Janet Leigh. There are acts of violence — and then there are acts of violence.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.