Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Two new ones, on screens locally.
“Am I going to die?” “Not as such.” There is much to enjoy in the absurdly self-conscious locutions of White Noise, a film crammed with academic huggermugger and tortured family negotiations. Many of the words, including the “not as such,” are from Don DeLillo’s novel, as is the movie’s curious three-part structure. It launches as a screwball comedy located in higher learning, with Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig expertly batting around the anxieties of their professional lives and their sprawling blended household. The second part revolves around an “Airborne Toxic Event,” a chemical spill that sends the family into panicked flight, a sequence that has some of the desperate comic-manic tone of the middle of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The final section is where the film skids into problems, relying on a handful of situations that might come to life in a novel but that stagger awkwardly when staged for a camera, with actual people on screen. You can see the appeal of this project for a director like Noah Baumbach, who expands his range here while working in the wry mode that he knows very well. The film plays like a graph, with crazy upward spikes and a handful of flatlines; it could wear out even the most sympathetic watcher, and yet it doesn’t seem to tap the possibilities of everything that spills out in the opening 20 minutes. (I, for one, would like to see a companion film that focuses solely on Driver’s professor and his heralded expertise in Hitler Studies.)
The film has a great feeling for supermarkets, where modern culture has been perfected; turns out Warhol was right about the Brillo boxes and Campbell’s cans—everything since then has been merely, well, white noise. I have always loved supermarkets myself, and Baumbach’s eye for the Disney-colored all-American Safeway (what a name, when you think about it!) is both merciless and celebratory. This leads us to the film’s post-credits sequence, one of the greatest ever made, thanks to the LCD Soundsystem song “New Body Rhumba” and a lot of dancing in the A&P aisles. If the rest of the film were this good, we would be talking about an all-timer.
The long and bewildering career of Jerzy Skolimowski finds a splendid culmination in this chronicle of a donkey’s life, an animal that passes from the circus world through a series of mostly traumatizing situations. The film doesn’t try to be like Robert Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthazar, that most transcendent of all animal pictures, as it stays resolutely at ground level, albeit with a few otherworldly passages (one interlude along a forest stream evokes The Night of the Hunter, as other creatures come out in the dark as though to guide our donkey along his way). This is the right way to go—our hero is a plodder, an innocent in a fast, cruel world, with a few narrow escapes and one well-placed kick to further his journey.
It is a film of striking sadness, and of occasional flowerings of beauty. Skolimowski made his first short film in 1960, co-wrote Polanski’s Knife in the Water, directed his own key titles in the Polish New Wave and the English-language masterpieces Deep End and Moonlighting, and acted in Marvel’s The Avengers. One hopes he kept a diary through some of this. No one who lived that kind of life could make an ordinary film about a donkey, and EO is thankfully not ordinary.
December 16, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.