Don DeLillo, “White Noise”

1985

DeLillo’s zeitgeisty “breakout” novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies (a department he invented) who can’t speak German. He works at The-College-on-the-Hill (perhaps a “city on the hill” reference to the Bible/Kennedy/Reagan) and is married for the fifth time to his fourth wife, Babette. They have a baby, Wilder, and a number of other children, including the prescient Steffie and the morose Heinrich. Both Babette and Jack are obsessed with death and with discussing who will die first. The bland 1980s and its “white noise” in the form of technology and advertising are recurrent subjects in the novel. (I would love to teach this with a John Hughes movie, like Sixteen Candles, and think about how trends, products, and cliches work in each).

When the “Airborne Toxic Event” arrives, Jack is exposed and later learns from testing that he has somehow been affected. The acronym is ironic, as the cloud is dispersed when microbes are released to eat it. SIMUVAC’s priority is to pretend the real event is simulated: “there is no substitute for a planned simulation” (a reality reversal like the most photographed barn bit. The barn’s aura is increased, rather than decreased, with each photograph in a “collective perception” that is different than Benjamin’s original theory: “we can’t get outside the aura” 13). Jack discovers Babette has slept with a man to get Dylarama, a drug to cure people of the fear of death. It is not working for her, but for a time Jack becomes obsessed with procuring some for himself. Jack and Murray talk, and Murray theorizes that “the more people you kill, the more power you gain over your own death… a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings” 291. Jack’s final confrontation with Willie Mink, the scientist who makes Dylar, is a sort of parody of the Marlow/Kurtz communication or the Humbert/Quilty conflict. It also seems to follow on the failed glory of Taxi Driver and the imagined horrors of American Psycho, both of which focus on sex and youth as well. The novel ends with Wilder miraculously surviving as he rides his tricycle across the freeway. Jack decides to stay away from the doctor and the “binary secrets” the information age seems to offer 326.

dir. Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver”

1976

Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), an “honorably discharged” U.S. marine, is a taxi driver in New York City. He becomes obsessed with the pure and obviously bourgeois Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), but things sour on their second date, when he takes her to a dirty movie and she doesn’t want to speak to him again. Travis becomes angry and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. He begins plotting to assassinate Palentine, the senator whose presidential campaign Betsy works for, and stockpiles a number of illegal weapons. He works out obsessively and practices integrating the weapons to his body, including through the use of a slider from a file cabinet running down his arm (DeNiro improvised the famous “You talking to me?” scene).

Eventually, Travis redirects his attention to the more helpless “Easy” (Jodie Foster), a twelve year-old prostitute whose real name is Iris (Easy/Iris making a neat pun on “easy on the eyes”), and whose violent and filthy world embodies the “scum and garbage” Travis is so obsessed with cleansing from the city. After killing everyone in her brothel, including her pimp, Travis mimes killing himself to the police, but cannot actually do it, since he is out of bullets. As the camera slowly pans out of the room where Iris weeps, into the staircase, down the hallway, and out into the street, finally ending in Travis’ room (covered in clippings), we learn he has become something of a hero for his actions. In the final scene of the film, we see Betsy’s disembodied face reflected in the rearview mirror of his taxi, surrounded by the flicking lights of the city (like Daisy in The Great Gatsby). She seems interested in him again, now that his violence has garnered him status, but he only gives her a free ride and drives off into the night, his eyes twitching anxiously around.

The film was made in the 1970s at a moment of urban crisis (white flight), conspiracy culture (Watergate), anxiety about children (Children’s Defense Act), and post-Vietnam cultural crisis (traumatized veterans). In particular, Travis’ transition from “copper” to “cowboy” in Sport’s eyes, “pioneering” the merging of his body with guns, and finally to renegade “Indian” (with his mohawk) for the murders, plots a particular mode of psychotic American individuality comparable to both Psycho & American Psycho. His status as an ex-marine also draws attention to a crisis of masculinity. In this sense, it would be interesting to put this film, with its slow-jazz phonograph soundtrack and dark clouds of steam, in conversation with Bladerunner & American Gigolo, which have still stronger “film noir” emphases in their depiction of seedy 1980s LA (rather than seedy 1970s).

I am also interested in thinking about how the film rewrites Lolita, with Jodie Foster as a crass pre-teen Lo, her pimp, Sport, as a sort of Quility (a “director” who lays out the sexual possibilities for Iris’ clients and tells her “If you ever liked what you were doin’ you wouldn’t be my woman), and Travis as a possessive, sociopathic Humbert Humbert who believes he is saving a girl with a wad of money and the murder of another man (a fantasy of himself as a defender, rather than an aggressor).