White Noise (2005)

“Nobody knows whether our personalities pass on to another existence or sphere, but if we can evolve an instrument so delicate to be manipulated by our personality as it survives in the next life such an instrument ought to record something.” Thomas Edison 1928

White Noise (IMDB), a January 2005 horror film that has no connection to Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name, was almost universally reviled when it was released to theaters, and yes, the film is poorly executed, particularly when it comes to the ease with which the main character, Jonathan (Michael Keaton), accepts the film’s supernatural premise that we can communicate with the dead through contemporary information technologies (as Cynthia Fuchs notes, the film fails to offer any characters who really question the supposedly scientific premise). Or when it comes to a mildly incoherent final act in which much of the film’s violence is grounded in a rather trivial source. It’s basically Ghost meets The Ring, but without the pathos of the former and the professional sheen and even the limited pop philosophy of the latter.

But White Noise is interesting, at least in its treatment of haunted media technologies. White Noise opens with a Thomas Edison quotation, fantasizing about the potential for communicating with the dead intercut with television static. In the film’s opening scenes, we learn that Jonathan’s wife, Anna, is pregnant, which pretty much seals her fate as a character. Jonathan, distraught at his wife’s death, eventually meets Raymond, an expert in Electronic Voice Phenomenon, in which the dead communicate with us via our TVs, computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices (Jeffery Sconce’s discussion of Haunted Media seems relevant here). Eventually, Jonathan meets others who share his belief in EVP, and there are some potentially interesting time shifts when Jonathan gets messages from characters who won’t die for several hours or days (recalling Rene Clair’s whimsical newspaper yarn, It Happened Tommorow), but the film shows little self-awareness in unpacking the high concept it introduces.

Still, it’s worth asking why this film appears at this particular historical moment. There is an implied post-9/11 subtext: Jonathan’s inability to prevent the deaths foreseen by Anna seems to be trying to communicate the impossibility of preventing all meaningless death, a point hammered home by Jonathan who notes that Anna only warns him of deaths that he could potentially prevent (“she didn’t warn me about some explosion overseas”). But I’m also intrigued by the film’s idea that our communications technologies provide us with some sort of link to the dead. The film’s fascination with alienating urban spaces and the flat screens of TVs and computer monitors conveys this desire for spiritual (or emotional) connection rather effectively. These shots, which often show Johnathan simply staring at staic, his face reflected in the dead screen, are the most effective moments in the film, with Fuchs noting that these scenes potentially implicate the viewer of the film:

To indicate John’s simultaneous loss of self and slide into self, the film has him literally scritch off the screen, transformed into the very static he can’t not watch. It’s a striking effect, and gestures toward critiquing the culture that invests in such reflective abstraction and emptiness. Indeed, it almost indicts your desire to see something in nothing.

And, of course, as in many recent horror films, the family subtext (the dead, pregnant wife; Jonathn’s rescue of a small child; a daughter’s ability to hear from her mother who died in childbirth) virtually overwhelms the film. Unfortunately, White Noise never really follows any of these leads with any degree of interest, which makes it a mediocre horror film, if mildly intriguing in its treatment of our fears about communications technologies.

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