How 'White Noise' Turned an '80s Supermarket Into Utopia
In the middle of an apocalyptic event, an A&P grocery store becomes a brightly lit refuge of familiar comforts.
In White Noise, the supermarket is a heavenly body. Its sliding doors might as well be pearly gates. The aisles within promise comfort in consumption, a rare place where no one leaves unsatisfied. Don DeLillo's renowned novel, published in 1985, talks of the supermarket as a site of "replenishment." On overstocked shelves sit vibrant, familiar products that provide "a fullness of being." The Lord led David to green pastures, but DeLillo sends us to A&P.
Various filmmakers have attempted to bring DeLillo's hard-to-adapt book to life over the years, and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story, Frances Ha) has finally succeeded. The supermarket first appears 12 minutes in. There, amid infinite merchandise and insipid loudspeaker announcements, the movie establishes the bloodlines among the blended Midwestern family at its center. Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a professor of Hitler studies at a prototypical liberal arts college, hunches over his shopping cart, explaining the makeup of his brood to an Elvis-obsessed colleague (Don Cheadle) while Jack's scatterbrained wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), tends to their four children, one of whom is seen licking an unopened box of Velveeta.
Around every corner, there are brands—more Cheerios, Pringles, Hi-C, and Brillo pads than one modest town could possibly need. The store's color scheme favors eye-popping yellows and reds, evoking Warholian pop art meets Miami Vice. Signs advertise prices that seem quaint compared to today's economy: strawberries for 59 cents per pound, a pack of bacon for $1.49. Inside the A&P's walls, decisions are made, secrets are shared, and a daze takes over. Everything comes naturally in heaven.
White Noise is about the numbing excess of modern life: the rambling television sets, the designer drugs, the boundless junk food. Really, though, it’s about our fear of death. Jack and Babette milk these distractions in an attempt to stave off such fear. When a black cloud dubbed an “airborne toxic event” hastens a temporary apocalyptic meltdown, nothing can possibly distract them enough. And yet, when the cloud passes, everyone returns to the comforts of the supermarket, where time only marches forward.
Baumbach and production designer Jess Gonchor envisioned the movie's grocery store as a sort of art installation. Taking over an empty Home Depot in Ohio, where White Noise was filmed in 2021, Gonchor color-blocked the merchandise so it would resemble a Rubik's Cube, which is especially appropriate for the '80s setting. "The supermarket works as a sort of visual white noise," Baumbach says. "When we see it from above, it’s a mass of color and shape, but when we’re with the characters in the aisles, the individual products come into focus."
Gonchor's team located vintage brand labels and created graphics inspired by the bright aesthetics of Taco Bell and local malls. Lighting played an essential role in the store's look, too.
"I wanted natural light to be able to be mixed with artificial light," Gonchor explains. "The natural light would illuminate the registers. You're always romanced on your way into a supermarket and your way out. The deeper you go into it, the more artificial it gets. There's a big science, I learned, to how they lay them out. They put all the healthy stuff at the beginning—you grab your lettuce and your tomatoes and your salad stuff. And then once you get in there, they get to all the candy and the chemicals so you don't feel bad about it."
Baumbach's script mentions a few specific brands, like Pepsi and Nabisco graham crackers, as well as other features borrowed from DeLillo's book, like a rack of tinted visors and the opening of a butcher's station. But in general, Gonchor was free to design the market however he saw fit. The set decorator, Claire Kaufman, even found someone who owned an old display rack made for L'eggs, the once-popular pantyhose line sold in egg-shaped containers.
The idea of A&P, reportedly the United States' largest grocery retailer for most of the 20th century, as a utopia is best defined in a monologue Cheadle delivers after the toxin-induced quarantine has ended. "It's comforting to know the supermarket hasn't changed since the toxic event," his hyper-academic character, Murray Siskind, tells Jack. "In fact, the supermarket has only gotten better. Between the unpackaged meat and the fresh bread, it's like a Persian bazaar. Everything is fine and will continue to be fine as long as the supermarket doesn't slip. … It recharges us spiritually. It's a gateway. Look how bright. Look how full of psychic data, waves, and radiation. All the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases. You just have to know how to decipher it."
Soon thereafter, Jack confronts Babette about Dylar, the experimental black-market pill she's been taking to curb her existential terror. Dylar is meant to have the same narcotic effect of the supermarket. What if we could go somewhere, or swallow something, to make us forget that life is merely a countdown to death, the details of which we cannot predict? Instead of allaying Babette's anxiety, the drug alters her perceptions of reality—and not in a fun LSD way. When she finally gives it up, Jack and Babette return to the supermarket. "Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin," he says via voiceover, "we keep inventing hope. And this is where we wait, together."
As a new LCD Soundsystem song kick-starts the end-credit sequence, shoppers launch into a synchronized flash mob. The camera tracks them as they shimmy down ailes, hoist products into the air like holy sacraments, and become zombified acolytes of the supermarket's spoils. Even characters we've never seen in the supermarket, including ones played by Jodie Turner-Smith and Outkast's André Benjamin, show up. They're as entranced as the Gladney clan.
"Noah asked me to make a dance that was an extension of what people already do in a supermarket, like looking at products, placing them in carts, pausing to think, corralling children, the gamut," says choreographer David Neumann, whose credits include Marriage Story and the Broadway musical Hadestown. "I wanted it to be a type of celebration of the supermarket itself and a culmination of the movement and gestural language seen throughout the film."
Those final moments are White Noise's most electric. Neumann devised the choreography using a different LCD Soundsystem track, "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House." but the essence of the band's "New Body Rhumba" works better, with lyrics about "Mini Nilla Wafers" and "3,000 miles of goods." The loopy propulsion seems to lure customers from one corridor to the next, offering sanctuary from the outside world.
"We wanted [the A&P] to work both as an accurate representation of the period while being very aware of its aesthetic and symbolic qualities," Baumbach says. "It’s commerce, it’s a communal meeting area, and, according to Murray, a waiting place between life and death."