Technically, white noise is a very specific kind of noise: If you hook a source up to a spectrum analyzer, you should see that all frequencies are equally represented in power. Usually, what you get on your TV or your storage media will be overrepresented in some bandwidth, most likely 60Hz.

White noise is good for getting a quick and dirty plot of frequency response of any circuit: Just put your generator at the input, and feed the output into a spectrum analyzer....On a log-log scale, it should look like the amplitude measurement of a Bode plot.

This will be biased.

Don Delillo's White Noise is, simply put, my favorite book. It is smart, relevant (even almost two decades after its first publication), steeped in sardonic humor, and constantly insightful. The book is structured around the "white noise" of everyday life: the hum of traffic, the chatter of radios and televisions and telephone conversations, sirens and sonic devices. There is mystery and doubt and the "magic and dread" of a perhaps too modern America.

The central character is Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies, a field of his own design, at the fictional "College-on-the-Hill". He has a strange and precariously balanced family life with his fourth wife, Babette, and his four children (all from previous marriages): Denise and Steffie, the impressionable daughters; Heinrich, a "question everything" sort of boy; and the vulnerable toddler Wilder. Jack's collegues are eccentric personalities including the supermarket-obsessed Elvis fanatic Murray and the always blushing and impossible-to-follow Winnie Richards.

White Noise takes all these elements and tosses them around for the first half of the novel, familiarizing you with the habits of the characters, their fears and desires. While reading, we witness conversations on the nature of sex, death, and Kleenex. We learn about the hidden wonders of supermarkets, about the virtues of generic foods. After a hundred pages, we are comfortable with the Gladney family: they are old friends.

And then there's the Airborne Toxic Event, the culmination of all the background noises, an unknown chemical cloud that hovers over the town, bringing out the worst paranoid sectors of the family. Sixty pages of straight narrative lead us through the event, the evacuation of the town, and set us up for the final section of the novel, one which introduces the mystery of the mysterious drug known only as "Dylar" and continues to hiss with the noises of modern life, including the newly formed "SIMUVAC" emergency preparedness drills which are based on the logic that, the less prepared a community is, the more likely disaster will strike.

There is no way I can capture the beauty and eloquence of White Noise in a simple expository. There is a murder scene that is perhaps the best committed to paper, and the last chapter of the book is a serene description of the human condition. There are wild comparisons between Elvis and Hitler, frightening glances at the inane things people do to achieve immortality, and, most importantly, very naked descriptions about what it means to have the capacity to fear one's own death.

I'll leave it to a passage from the novel:

On the way back from the airport, I got off the expressway at the river road and parked the car at the edge of the woods. I walked up a steep path. There was an old picket fence with a sign.

THE OLD BURYING GROUND
Blacksmith Village

The headstones were small, tilted, pockmarked, spotted with fungus or moss, the names and dates barely legible. The ground was hard, with patches of ice. I walked among the stones, taking off my gloves to touch the rough marble. Embedded in the dirt before one of the markers was a narrow vase containting three small American flags, the only sign that someone had preceded me to this place in this century. I was able to make out some of the names, great strong simple names, suggesting a moral rigor. I stood and listend.

I was beyond the traffic noise, the intermittent stir of factories across the river. So at least in this they'd been correct, placeing the graveyard here, a silence that had stood its ground. The air had a bite. I breathed deeply, remained in one spot, waiting to feel the peace that is supposed to descend upon the dead, waiting to see the light that hangs above the fields of the landscapist's lament.

I stood there, listening. The wind blew snow from the branches. Snow blew out of the woods in eddies and sweeping gusts. I raised my collar, put my gloves back on. When the air was still again, I walked among the stones, trying to read the names and dates, adjusting the flags to make them swing free. Then I stood and listened.

The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. Is there a level of energy composed solely of the dead? They are also in the ground, of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream.

May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.
Don Delillo: The poet of paranoia. The sultan of suspicion. The troubadour of trepidation.

I didn't get much out of White Noise. Maybe it’s because I read Douglas Coupland first, though Coupland probably copied Delillo and not the other way around. But both authors seem to embrace the same sorts of anxieties about the modern age: one, the media is this all-encompassing force that affects us in ways we can’t control. The characters simultaneously fear, mock, yet participate in consumerism. Two, the end of the world is upon us. Though it doesn’t always happen in Coupland books (then again, sometimes it does), and it doesn’t happen in White Noise, the obsession with death and disasters keeps the idea just below the surface, ready to pop up from time to time.

Both Coupland and Delillo suggest that the dystopia is here, upon us, now. What’s scary is that we’re caught up in it. All of the technology of the modern age is starting to backfire on us. Stories about white noise affecting children’s ability to learn are in the same spirit as White Noise. The fact that there’s this inaudible noise all around us, affecting us in ways we can’t fathom, scares us. To me the book has aged little. People still have that sense that everything around us is dangerous, causes cancer, has side effects we won’t hear about until it’s much, much too late.

This reminds me of a movie I saw called Safe, starring Julianne Moore. It’s about this woman who suddenly becomes sick, and gets nosebleeds and faints all the time, and the doctors aren’t sure what’s wrong with her. The whole movie is filmed in these muted tones, almost silvery (which is especially weird because it's set in an upper-class Southern Californian suburb; perpetually sunny and gaudy), and the camera leaves all this space around her, so she looks tiny and surrounded by an eerily silent environment, like it’s ready to engulf her. She’s much like Jack’s character in the second half of the book, always apprehensive and seemingly on the verge of self-destruction or death or something. She sees an ad on a bulletin board in the hospital for a meeting for people with unexplained sicknesses, and how it’s related to airplane fumes and other pollutants. She ends up going to this new age camp/retreat place (very California-esque) for other people who are allergic to everything and they live in these bomb shelter type houses in complete fear, all the time trying to escape from the chemicals that are killing them. The fear eats them up and the woman becomes insane and hysterical in the end. (It’s a depressing movie.)

White Noise reminded me of Safe because of its paranoia that everything around us is turning out to be deadly in some way. Like, when Denise keeps harassing Babette about smoking and/or chewing sugarless gum and Babette protests that everything is harmful nowadays. Also, everyone is constantly preparing for these “disasters,” but if somebody just told you about SimuVac, you’d probably think they were preparing earthquakes and hurricanes, which would be good. But instead they prepare for bad smells and such things. With the modern age come modern disasters.

Ubiquitous advertising and media occupies Delillo more, though. People fear disaster more because they’re being constantly bombarded with it on TV and in movies. It’s happening to everyone else, so they’re only waiting for their time to come, to be part of the whole thing. After the airborne toxic event, as Babette mentions, they are disappointed that there isn’t more media coverage. They feel they deserve what they’ve been shown on TV should happen to them: they should be hounded relentlessly by TV cameras and reporters. There should be full coverage. The whole thing becomes meta-meta-meta into infinity. Even the idea of the ruthless media following you around has been perpetuated by the media.

I like the phrase “cultural detritus” an awful lot. It all ties in nicely with the idea of a present dystopia. It ties in with Delillo's discussion in the novel about the creation of new words and its connection with consumerism. When Steffie is murmuring “Toyota Celica” in her sleep, Jack comments about “supranational names, computer-generated, more or less universally pronounceable. Part of every child’s brain noise…” It’s interesting because of its context within the anti-globalization movement (emphasis on the fact that the names are supranational) and because of the comment that it’s part of “brain noise.” The interjections of name brands aren’t just Jack’s fascination with new words, but also a manifestation of this cultural detritus floating around in our heads. A never-ending flow of useless information, all of which we can’t possibly retain, so there are these remainders, scraps and bits of things that float to the surface at random or because something reminds us of it. The scene is metafictional too, in that Jack imagines that Steffie is saying something profound, and he builds up all this suspense and becomes obsessed with hearing whatever it was. We skim ahead, too, hoping for profundity, but it’s the name of a car. But in a sense that is profound because it addresses these “substatic regions too deep to probe” in the brain. Full of white noise.

The scene with Willie Mink deals with cultural detritus too. He’s taken so much Dylar that all of these subliminal pieces of leftover information have overtaken his brain. It’s almost like Tourette’s syndrome – he involuntarily and even unconsciously utters random bits of advertising. He interjects with, “the pet under stress may need a prescription diet,” and, “containing iron, niacin and riboflavin.” Everything becomes blurry in this scene, too. It’s as though everything except Mink is becoming white noise, and it’s eating him from the inside, too. The Poet of Paranoia. I’d say it was aptly put. That’s one of the main differences I found between Douglas Coupland and Don Delillo. Delillo is ten times more bleak. At least many of Coupland’s characters exist within anti-status quo subcultures and can actually look at things from the outside. Coupland’s characters survive, but Delillo’s deteriorate. There is no solution for them.

White Noise

A Review by Tyler Foster

The deep bass voice of the movie's trailer intones that "the subject of some movies is so disturbing, that those who experience them will never be the same again." And White Noise's premise is indeed pretty creepy: Look into E.V.P. for real and it’s easy to end up losing a lot of sleep. Unfortunately, White Noise fails to make good on any of the built-in potential, delivering a gratingly familiar collection of jolt tactics and one or two real scares buried in an overly slow runtime and capped with one of the worst endings in recent memory. Staring into the static of this film is not going to get anyone anywhere.

Michael Keaton plays Jonathan Rivers, an architect whose wife, writer Anna Rivers (Chandra West), goes missing and is eventually found dead. But Jonathan receives a visit from a mysterious man named Raymond Price (Ian McNiece), who claims he is able to not only contact the dead, but has received messages from Jonathan's wife. But there is, of course, more to the mystery (jeez, what would the movie be without it?), and with the help of fellow E.V.P.-listener Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), Jonathan takes a headfirst dive into the paranormal.

Such blind-diving leads White Noise into a cut-rate, unoriginal and cliché mystery-thriller plotline that feels less like a thread moving through the film than an abnormal growth suffocating the ideas surrounding E.V.P. It would be easy to say that a documentary made on the same subject could have been a lot better, but White Noise even falls far below most of its average supernatural thriller counterparts. It's the fact that E.V.P. is real that makes the concept scary, but the movie's presentation is so hokey and ridiculous, it sucks the validity right out of the film. To put it simply, say, Van Helsing was far more realistic -- and scary -- than this.*

The performances from range from average to just dead on arrival, with Keaton being pretty much blank-faced and dull aside from a few moments of emotion he stumbles through awkwardly. Chandra West isn't on-screen long enough to be memorable, and Ian McNiece gets the unsavory job of intoning eerily and lurking about. It's nice to see Deborah Kara Unger again (The Game was a long time ago), but her character here has so little to it that Unger has nothing to build off of. The rest of the cast fades ably into the background, despite obviously layered roles I spied in the credits, like "Minister," "Work Man," and "Presence #1."

And then there's the finale. It's hard to fully describe how awful the ending to White Noise really is, except that it’s been thoroughly botched on multiple levels. Bad writing converges with cornball direction, along with a dollop of confusion to make sure everything sticks together, kind of like a spitball aimed at the audience. Geoffrey Sax's helming skills aren't exactly shining by the final act, but during the last 12 minutes his interest apparently hit rock bottom. The twists White Noise unveils are like seeing a failed magic trick repeated in desperationconfusing, disappointing, and sad. A better conclusion might have just barely gained the flick weaker guilty pleasure status, but unfortunately, it's the worst part of the film.

White Noise is not just a waste of time and money, but of a great idea. Not only does the premise fail as a standard supernatural thriller, but the effort could have been better spent on a non-fiction film about the same subject without ruining one of the few ideas Hollywood hadn't yet thought of. The science of E.V.P.s is fascinating to say the least, and it's a huge disappointment that all these people have invested in such a subpar production. As the last bits of potential drain away in the last reel of White Noise, what remains is a mess of dispirited static, leaving just the dull echo of dead air.

Grade: D

Starring Michael Keaton, Deborah Kara Unger, Chandra West, Sarah Strange, and Ian McNiece
Written by Niall Johnson | Directed by Geoffrey Sax
Universal Pictures (2005) | 101 Minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and language

*Yes, I understand that Van Helsing wasn't scary. That was the joke.

Note: I implore you! Find out good stuff about real E.V.P. at www.aaevp.com.

They drop from salt shaker clouds,
the last ingredient of a landscape. Invisible
in the darkness until they reach the swathes
of light cast by the tall lamps, above
an empty parking lot. If they made noise,
they would sound like the cacophony
of a symphony tuning their instruments.

Snow covered bats race between flakes
like the blind doves of winter. The world
is more imposing in silence. Tonight
it demands only that I listen. Each footstep,
with its rubbery compression, may as well
be an inning of baseball in a light bulb factory.
I stop walking, to watch each flake,

born into solitude, high above the Earth,
until it joins the cities of snow. It’s easy
to see how easy our lives fall into metaphors.
I catch a flake in my mouth and let it die
with its identity, like a commuter, consumed
by a front end collision, en route to the cubicle

Ideas are given form with the Rorschach
of my foggy breath, Comic book bubbles appear
when I have no words to fill them. I offer
the snow my footsteps instead, my boots
leave their prints across a virgin field.
The symmetric curves appear in the snow,
like a breast and a scream that break
from the white noise of forbidden cable.

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