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Venice Dispatch: Baumbach’s “White Noise,” Iñárritu’s “Bardo,” Field’s “TÁR”

As the Venice Film Festival kicks off its 79th edition, some words on three of its first official competition entries.
Leonardo Goi
White Noise.
Halfway through the Lido, an impossibly long stretch of villas and hotels shielding Venice from the Adriatic, is a small canal flanked by rhododendrons, and at the entry of that canal is a bridge. I don’t know its name, who built it, or when. Every vaporetto I’ve taken since 2014, my first trip to the festival, has had to duck under it, and over the years the arc has turned into a kind of totem, its crossing a ritual. Of all the sights on the island—the red carpet circling the Sala Grande, the crowds besieging the Hotel Excelsior, the flags flapping atop the Biennale headquarters—that bridge is the first I see, the one that turns the ferry ride into a homecoming and makes me hold my breath, as if passing under it meant leaving one world to enter another.
Every festival carries that feeling; the bigger the event, the stronger the illusion. Much like Cannes, Venice (which this year celebrates its 79th edition, marking 90 years since its inaugural event) has a way of tricking you into thinking its sun-scorched grounds are a universe unto itself, the only place worth being for the first ten days of September. I’m not immune to the hype, and a quick glance at the program doesn’t help much. Stashed in a promising official competition lineup are new films by Joanna Hogg, Frederick Wiseman, Todd Field, Andrew Dominik, Jafar Panahi, and Alice Diop...not to mention the riches hidden in the parallel sidebars, home to some of 2021’s finest (it was here that I found, among others, Kiro Russo’s El Gran Movimiento, Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral, and Helena Girón and Samuel M. Delgado’s They Carry Death). It’s been two years since the miraculous feat Venice pulled off in 2020, when, against all odds, it rolled out as a physical event, heralding a premature return to normalcy. Walking the streets around the Casino Palace on the eve of the fest, it was as if the pandemic never happened: the ten-foot-tall Berlin Wall that used to ring the red carpet has been removed (for the delight of autograph- and selfie-hunters who’ll soon set camp all along the Sala Grande); face masks are no longer mandatory; and halls have returned to full capacity. The festival is back, and for the next ten days, the Lido will crackle with an ineffable buzz, “an accumulation of nameless energies” (to borrow from a character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise) that will keep me agog until September 10.
White Noise.
DeLillo’s 1985 novel was tucked deep in my bag as the lights of the Sala Darsena dimmed out for Noah Baumbach’s film of the same name. His White Noise stars Adam Driver as Jack Gladney, and Greta Gerwig as his wife Babette. They’re an ad-hoc family with four children by previous marriages, and for the first of the film’s (and book’s) three parts, Baumbach tracks their routines, following Gladney—the world’s leading professor of Hitler Studies—as he teaches his Advanced Nazism course at the fictional College-on-the-Hill. Baumbach’s long shown a keen eye for the paradoxes of dysfunctional family dynamics, and a pair as idiosyncratic as Gladney and Babette (to say nothing of their garrulous children) makes for a rollicking case study à la The Meyerowitz Stories. But White Noise soon sheds its lilting aura: as a train crash unleashes a cloud of toxic chemicals, the Gladneys are evacuated from their home, and shunted along a mass pilgrimage to makeshift shelters and quarantine camps.
The parallels between the hysteria around the Airborne Toxic Event (as authorities soon christen it) and our own COVID zeitgeist are uncanny. But it’s the book’s forays into a screen-infested society that feel most prescient. If the world was awash with noise in the mid-eighties, the paranoias Baumbach sponges now ring all the more timely. TV screens bob up everywhere, as if a direct invocation of Michael Haneke, all of them beaming cataclysmic and horrifying images. Crucially (and in a curious departure from the source text), Baumbach begins his White Noise not with Gladney glancing at the procession of station wagons dropping students back on campus at the end of the summer, but with his colleague and Elvis maven Murray (Don Cheadle) playing a reel of car accidents before a captivated class, encouraging his pupils to think of those clips not as violence, but “a celebration... a reaffirmation of traditional values and beliefs.” Baumbach’s White Noise courts death from its first shot, and then proceeds to lampoon a society which has turned it into a spectacle, a product that’s as easy to purchase and consume as the Waffles and Kabooms at the local supermarket.
Baumbach’s satire is DeLillo’s, too. White Noise-the-novel offers an unflinching condemnation of our zombified consumerism and broadcast culture. But its brilliance—the reason why, nearly 40 years on, it still exerts such a prophetic allure—lies not just in the castigation of that mode of being, but also in its portrait of the magic that fuels it. As written by DeLillo, White Noise seesaws between dread and wonder. It’s in tune with both Gladney’s (and Babette’s) unremitting fear of death as it is with the “moments of splendid transcendence” that pepper their suburban existence. And it beckons us into an ancestral, almost primitive realm, forcing us to reckon with horror as much as wide-eyed amazement. “Our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious,” Gladney muses in the book. Yet in Baumbach’s take, that awe is often talked about, but seldom left. The supermarkets themselves, which for DeLillo stood as mausoleums governed by some schizophrenic god, are here suitably soulless, repurposed by Jess Gonchor’s production design as simulacra of lurid colors, slogans, and identical products. But they radiate none of the reverential, almost mystical fascination they hold for Gladney and his Mephistophelian sidekick Murray. Nor do the seemingly trivial and banal interactions that pave the professor’s journey, within which DeLillo was always somehow able to dredge up the unique and the extraordinary.  
This isn’t just a compare-contrast quibble. It’s to suggest that, in his efforts to dissect the Gladneys and their media- and info-flooded world, Baumbach forsakes the other side of the book, which makes DeLillo’s critique so much more perceptive and timeless. He sacrifices its stupor, the childlike incredulity Gladney wears on his face as he wakes up to the epic quotidian, the myriad revelations that litter his life. Awash in all sorts of symbols and references, the novel surveys the clash between everyday noise and ancient signals. It’s suspended between tenderness and despair, reverence and burlesque, satire and sacred. And for all the titular noise relentlessly cracking from loudspeakers, radios, and TVs, it manages to carve out several pauses, quiet breaks which make room for some of Gladney’s most significant epiphanies. Baumbach finds no such moments of respite; his White Noise is so cacophonous, its themes and discourse so dense, the film sands off the novel’s sardonic bite and much of its wonder.
Equally sprawling, but far more exhausting, was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo, his first feature since 2015’s The Revenant. Centered on a renowned Mexican journalist-cum-filmmaker played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, the film swells from a close-up study of a man and his existential crisis into a much larger, protean canvas of the country he’s left behind. Evanescent as it is, the plot echoes Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Giménez Cacho’s Silverio Gama returns to his native turf to receive an award for his work, only the journey is interrupted by all manner of detours, visions, and dreams. Bardo hangs in a liminal region between hallucinations and facts, between different timelines, traumas, and mirages. In that, it draws from Bergman as much as Fellini, whose La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 serve as some of its key touchstones. Giménez Cacho—here grappling with a spleen that brings to mind the colonial officer he played in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama—saunters into Bardo like a distant cousin of Mastroianni’s Marcello Rubini and Guido Anselmi. His crisis is one of purpose: at the zenith of his career, he’s lost touch with both country and profession. Needled into self-doubt by his children Camila and Lorenzo (Ximena Lamadrid and Iker Solano), his wife Lucia (Griselda Siciliani), and a small pantheon of fans, sycophants, and apparitions, he scans the homeland as a kind of exile, stunned and perturbed by all he sees. 
The aporia is contagious, and, in my book, exasperating. At three hours, not only is Bardo Iñárritu’s longest undertaking, it’s also his most ambitious—which is to say a lot. Straddling the micro and the macro, the personal and the collective, there are times when the film seems to morph into a lecture on Mexico’s history. Written by Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone, the script features all kinds of encounters with the ghosts of the country’s bloody past. A meeting between Silverio and the US ambassador is interrupted by throngs of soldiers from the two countries fighting each other in a reenactment of the Mexican-American War; a lone stroll downtown sees Silverio bump into none other than Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. There’s no denying the power of some of these images—Bardo was shot in 65mm by Darius Khondji, and the widescreen cinematography makes the desert and metropolis look almost liquid, a choice that amplifies the film’s restless blurring of reality, time, and space. But the amalgam they form is unnervingly patchy, and for all the bewilderment it should evoke, Bardo ends up feeling stilted. Like Baumbach, Iñárritu doesn’t let wonder arise from the material; instead, he pulverizes it under a cacophony of farcical, bombastic visuals and sounds—not scenes so much as splinters of scenes. Silverio’s last documentary, a colleague chides him at the award ceremony, was “pointlessly oneiric”; “you use historical figures to talk about yourself.” I suspect the same could be said of Bardo, too.
Hearing Silverio muse about his craft brought me back to a far more singular and multifaceted Portrait of an Artist unveiled just the night before, Todd Field’s TÁR. Cate Blanchett is the titular Lydia Tár, a megastar conductor with a CV the size of an encyclopedia, a mansion that might as well serve as an art gallery, and the whole Berlin Philharmonic under her baton. Field (who wrote, produced, and directed TÁR) introduces her as a sort of artistic deity and pioneer—the first-ever female chief conductor of a German orchestra. And Blanchett embraces that messianic aura, swanning into the film and dispensing mantras on the soul-replenishing power of classical music, cribbed almost verbatim from her mentor Leonard Bernstein. That is, until things start to fall apart. When one of Lydia’s former mentees commits suicide, rumors around the maestro’s alleged responsibility for her death begin to surface. And it’s not long before Lydia is exposed as a serial predator—a gatekeeper who, per a New York Post article, “systematically enticed and groomed young women” looking to advance their musical careers.
The revelation breaks TÁR in half, but it’s not a brusque twist. Field carefully disseminates clues; Krista, the girl Lydia supposedly drove to suicide, remains largely invisible, but always dangles over the conductor’s head as a sword of Damocles, and TÁR hints at its heroine’s problematic record long before this is finally revealed. Yet Lydia—as Field pens her and Blanchett embodies her—remains deliberately ambiguous. And that may well be one of TÁR’s greatest virtues. The woman does get her comeuppance, eventually—and the film never downplays her wrongdoings, never wholly empathizes with her even as the truth throws her career into a limbo. But TÁR is too sophisticated and subtle to wallow in schadenfreude. If anything, it revels in a game of turning tables, conjuring a living legend by way of master classes, interviews, and photoshoots only to chip away at that impossible image and re-evaluate some of the teachings she’s tossed along the way. The film’s most memorable exchange is not the heated argument over the separation between art and artist that Lydia engages in with a class of Juilliard students (a gasp-inducing and cumulatively uncomfortable repartee, shot by Florian Hoffmeister in an almost uninterrupted take). They’re the thoughts she shares with colleagues and confidantes, in which she preaches the importance of being original (“there’s no glory for a robot; do your own thing”) and elaborates on her love for music and its significance (“the closest thing anyone ever experiences to the divine”). I suspect there'll be many who'll frame the film as one about cancel culture; sure enough, that's the discourse it orbits around, but the tag feels like a straitjacket. Field is not interested in patronizing us, much less in handing us a compass to navigate the debates it stirs. That TÁR makes it possible to be repulsed by Lydia’s private persona and in thrall to her craft and her relationship with it—the way she lives it, speaks about it, obliterates herself before it—that it refuses to land on either total opprobrium or absolution, is what makes it soar.


Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2022Noah BaumbachAlejandro González IñárrituTodd Field
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