There are certain things we just have to accept when living in cities, certain givens that are part of the fabric of urban life: overcrowded trains; overcrowded sidewalks; overcrowded grocery store aisles; overcrowded apartments. And arising from all this, the noise.
The noise of overcrowding, the noise of the hive. The noisy neighbors we can hear arguing through paper thin walls; the thumping bass of car stereos we can hear coming from blocks away; the sirens, the jackhammers, the horns, the back up beepers, the mufflerless motorcycles. This, all this racket, this is the price we pay. We resign ourselves to it, put it up with it … mostly.
Tim Robbins, Bridget Moynahan, William Hurt, Margarita Levieva, William Bladwin
US DVD: 16 Sep 2008
But then, there’s the incessant car alarm in the wee hours of the morning and everything goes to hell. For some reason that is the great exception to the white noise carpet of city life. Somehow the car alarm is extracted, isolated and exaggerated from the normal roil of the city, its shrill blaring amplified both in reality and in our minds. No matter how inured we become to everything else, we never seem to adapt to the noise it makes.
But most of us do nothing about it. It provokes rage, but also a certain proportional impotence. Why is that, why is it so forbidding? Maybe it’s the odd impersonality. Everything else, every other noise, has an agent, we can see specifically who is causing it. Car alarms, on the other hand, seem to act on their own accord. They’re like an act of nature, an act of God. It’s almost like its some sort of punishment brought down from on high. But why must we suffer this penance?
We know we don’t deserve this. We know that we are right in our moral outrage. We know that car alarms do not do what they are designed to do, that they are essentially useless at preventing auto theft, essentially unessential. We know that no court should find us guilty if we were to attack these cosmic nuisances head on. All there’s left to do is act.
And yet none of us ever do. For over two years, a car with an alarm of exquisite sensitivity harassed my neighborhood into a nervous breakdown. Just about anything would set it off (except, I suspect, someone trying to break in to it): a bus rushing by; a dog barking across the street; a gust of wind; a whispered conversation three floors up and behind two walls. It was never a question of if it would go off, but when, and how often. Sometimes its cycles would blare in quick succession, sometimes at longer intervals that seemed designed precisely to lull you into a false sense of security that it was over, before storming back, louder and more obnoxious than ever.
I think the people who owned the car lived in my building, but I never sought them out. I wonder if any of my neighbors did. If they did, it had no effect. Nothing did. I once got up the gumption to leave a rather polite note of complaint under the windshield wiper (which, of course, promptly set off the alarm). Several other people left notes promising escalating violence to the car. Nothing came of it. Eventually, the owners of the car moved. And that was that.
Would that I had been more like David Owen (Tim Robbins), the quixotic hero of writer/director Henry Bean’s semi-autobiographical Noise. Owen has no such qualms about confronting car alarms head on, about destroying the thing that destroys his peace and quiet. After all, “they” started it.
Armed with a hammer, a screwdriver, and a baseball bat, he patrols the night time streets of New York City as the self-proclaimed Rectifier, avenging himself on what he deems an assault on peace and quiet, public decency, and probably Western Civilization itself. He’s a vigilante, a folk hero. He does all the things we would like to do, but are too scared to do in the end. He’s the great white knight riding against the Biblical blight of noise pollution.
Except perhaps his motivations aren’t so pure. Perhaps it’s not the greater good that drives him out into the streets at night. Perhaps he doesn’t even care about you or me and how the noise affects us; perhaps he doesn’t even really care about how the noise affects him, not really. See, it’s not what the noise does (disrupt sleep, concentration, wake the baby) that bothers him so much that it simply IS. He doesn’t care if it’s right outside his window or five blocks away, just on the cusp of hearing. That it exists, that it’s noise overrides everything else. He can’t heed his wife’s urgings to “just let it go”.
Like all monomaniacal moral crusaders who lose sight of the practical, it’s the principle of the thing, damnit! And that is when fight becomes unwinnable, mostly because deep down, Owen, like so many crusaders before him, comes to exist in a self-destructive symbiosis with that which plagues him. It’s a question of identity – he needs the noise, he even kind of starts to like it—he kind of gets off on it.
And actually Owen—a caring father, loving husband, and respected lawyer (not exactly a candidate for wide eyed populist lunatic)—does get off on it, for real. It happens eventually, after his wife throws him out of the house after his third arrest, and first full stint in jail. His release makes him all the more unrepentant, and he finds himself soon sleeping with a hotheaded activist 20ish Russian émigré who is entranced by his vigilantism, who spurs him to take his crusade to the next level: direct political action. This involves locking horns with the Mayor Schneer (William Hurt, in a just plain bizarre scenery chewing performance) whose main goal while in office seems to solely to quash The Rectifier once and for all.
The problem with Noise is that, aside from its premise, and the initial thrill of watching Robbins slash tires, bash out windows and rip out wires, there is really little to it that constitutes a story. It wants to assign a psychological/philosophical depth to its hero that just isn’t there. It wants to posit noise pollution as the great scourge of our time. The film is all thesis, no substance. In fact, Bean states on his commentary track, close to the beginning, that the initial portion of the film the first ten minutes or so, constitutes a sort of essay, an extra-filmic precis on the argument he wishes to make, before the main narrative kicks in.
The problem is, that never happens. The whole film is nothing but argument (for arguing’s sake), beginning to end . The characters, the tone, the muddled disconnected action, all are rendered inconsequential to Bean’s belaboring of his only point (noise=bad; smashing cars=good). Point taken, buddy. We are never not aware of exactly what the subject matter is. But I do wonder whether it necessitated the investment of time, and money, and talent to warrant a film, or if a film is even workable at all from such a flimsy premise.
Bean might have had the makings of decent short film here. The first 10-15 minutes are a lot of fun, with lots of fourth wall breaking asides, narrative hopping, and ruminations on why in the world car alarms exist. But there’s nothing here to sustain a full 90-minutes. The slog of the remainder – when it tries, lamely, to cook up some drama—is like listening to the droning of an unctuous self-righteous windbag who hasn’t figured out that everyone has long since tuned him out, that his tired rambling has, ironically, become the just the sort of irksome noise he has been railing against. Nothing some earplugs won’t rectify.
Boasting a name cast and a premise with universal appeal, it was somewhat of a mystery that Noise seemed to have received only the barest of festival releases before being shunted straight on to DVD. Having watched it, though, it’s not all that much of a surprise. The extras include lots of yakking by the stars, director, and producers, and most of them seem to think they have a winner on their hands (must have been done before post-production).
Bean’s self-congratulatory commentary track is willfully pretentious and offensive. It’s bad enough that the film name drops Hegel all over the place, but then for Bean to drone on about him is just plain obnoxious. Bu if I had known going in that he would try to draw some sort of historical link between the suffering we endure from noisy alarms and the great genocidal tragedies of the 20th century (it’s quite astonishing, really), I might never have watched this in the first place.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article