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by Kathi Maio

Ghosts in the Machine

RECENTLY, at the University where I spend my days, a student received a Samaritan award for designing an "oasis room" where students could go and chill. In the room would be natural light lamps to chase away SAD (seasonal affective disorder), as well as a stream of "white noise" to promote relaxation and meditation.

Yes, white noise—the staticy, nondistinct sound pattern that we associate most with untuned radio and television signals—has become much more than an ear-grating annoyance. Now, amidst the relentless cacophony of tunes and voices pointedly and often loudly attempting to inform or entertain us or (more likely) sell us something, we seem to long for the blessedness of a blank signal.

You might wonder why we'd choose the hiss and purr of static. Perhaps we are so unaccustomed to the actual sound of silence that it would turn us into pillars of salt at this point. More likely, silence is simply unachievable in modern life. An indistinct noise runs interference for all those sounds that genuinely mean something while we try to lull our hamster-wheeled brains into rest or sleep.

All of those trendy, new-agey relaxation sound machines and natural/gentle alarms come with a white noise function. And whether their tracks include a faint rhythmic thud meant to take us back to the womb—horrible thought, that!—or opt instead for steady-stream shushing, all of those gadget manufacturers (and student Samaritans) want us to embrace white noise as a foolproof path to blissful nothingness.

Others, however, see white noise as a much different pathway. They are interested in the momentary somethings they perceive, tucked away in the nothingness. These people are devotees of a paranormal technique called EVP, or electronic voice phenomena.

Using simple household technology like a tape recorder and a radio tuned to the static between stations, EVP enthusiasts record the white noise and then review their recordings looking for unexpected voices. Although some believe that they have captured communications from aliens, most of those who believe in and collect EVP see the technique as a means of capturing messages from the human dead—those who have passed over to the "other side" but who still wish to communicate with the living.

For many of us, these types of paranormal experiments are nothing more than higher tech equivalents of the clattering tables of séances and cryptic spellouts of a Ouija board. Those who take such things seriously are often, we fear, slightly lost souls in need of grief counseling—so desperate are they for the muffled hint of a one- or two-word message from someone they mourn, that they will listen to countless hours of static in the hopes of making an afterlife connection.

Although skepticism about EVP is common, enthusiasts are growing in number, and have clubs and societies worldwide. (See, the website of the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena, for an example.) Now Hollywood, by way of a British director (Geoffrey Sax) and screenwriter (Niall Johnson), has decided they want a piece of the action. And so they've created a rather confused and confusing film called White Noise.

Mr. Johnson clearly researched his topic, and totally gets the grief angle of EVP. But he evidently wasn't sure how to make a viable movie out of his at once unsettling and emotionally potent topic. Did he want to write a psychological drama about the paths people take while in the throes of mourning? Seems like. But since he knew that was a pitch that just wouldn't sell, he seems to have tacked on some very extraneous horror bits to his basic storyline. Or, even more likely perhaps, a succession of script doctors (quacks, all) tried to jazz up Mr. Johnson's little psychodrama.

But, hey, let me say something nice about the movie before I start shredding it. The best thing about White Noise is easy to identify. It is the movie's star, Michael Keaton. Keaton is one of those actors who should have a much better film career than he does at the moment. His movies often have fantasy elements to them. But at some point, he left behind movies like Beetlejuice (1988) and Batman (1989) for films like Multiplicity (1996) and Jack Frost (1998). This downward spiral continues with our current film and, no doubt, in the upcoming Disney self-remake, Herbie: Fully Loaded. But even when the material he is given isn't up to par, this actor's performances remain very watchable.

In the case of playing Jonathan Rivers, the hero of White Noise, you can see what attracted Keaton to the role. The character starts out as a fairly uninteresting guy; one of those overly successful, well-to-do midlife professionals with an adorable little son he doesn't spend enough time with, and a gorgeous, second trophy wife (Anna, played by Chandra West) who just happens to be a best-selling author about to give him another kid. It's one of those perfect, prosperous lives you want to see destroyed. And before long, it is.

That's when the role gets interesting for Keaton—and when the story should get interesting for his audience.

Anna's car is found abandoned near a rocky water embankment. Did she fall and drown, or was she abducted? No one has a clue, and as the weeks pass, the stress of not knowing wears on Jonathan. One morning he notices a portly man following him. When he confronts the man, the man says that Anna is dead but that he has been receiving messages from her on "the other side." Raymond Price (the fine character actor Ian McNeice) offers his assistance in allowing the husband and wife to communicate through EVP.

The body of Anna is found and buried. Grief ravages Jonathan, and strange happenings occur. Eventually, he seeks out Price, hears samples of EVP messages and sees blurry video images (that would more properly be termed ITC, or Instrumental Transcommunication—a distinction the film doesn't bother with). At Price's home he meets another mourner, a bookseller named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), who recently lost her fiancé, but is convinced she has just received a positive report of her lover's life in the great beyond.

Before long, Jonathan is hooked. He has set up an elaborate audio/video lab in his new and very sterile glass-walled apartment and spends all of his time recording and playing back white noise samples, hoping to make contact with his wife. And he is quickly convinced that he has.

Up until this point, the film is moderately engaging, thanks to Mr. Keaton's understated yet intense performance as a man obsessed with reconnecting with his dead wife. You can almost sense how a compelling human drama might have been made on the subject.

Jonathan's obsessive EVP work might have put him at odds with family and friends. His ex-wife Jane (Sarah Strange), perhaps, might wonder about his mental health after listening to his samples of Anna. EVP has been called "Rorschach audio" precisely because people hear in the hiss what they need or wish to hear. Scientific researchers have studied this, playing the same sample to dozens of people, none of whom hear the same thing—that is until they are told what the message is.

Why not explore this issue? The movie doesn't even acknowledge that it exists. Nor does the film state or explore any of the obvious "rational" explanations for EVP anomalies (electromagnetic interference, demodulated audio signals, a microphone wire acting as an antenna and capturing a snippet of a radio broadcast, etc.). Contrasting Jonathan's new and fervent belief to the skepticism that probably would have confronted him might have intensified both the sense of his increasing isolation, and audience sympathy for him.

For that matter, making the movie more of a murder mystery with police investigating him as the killer of his wife might have worked as plot device, too, if you needed the film to be a "thriller." I certainly expected just such a subplot. After all, by the end of the movie, several people besides Jonathan's wife die or are gravely injured with Jonathan always a witness or the first on the scene. Wouldn't police be extremely suspicious of such a dangerous man to know? Not in this movie. There is a cop who appears in a few scenes, but Jonathan never seems high on his list of suspects for all the hinky things going on. Perhaps the policeman's role was edited down to nothing. I can testify that it contributes little to the existing movie.

Sadly, there are a hundred possible scenarios that might have made more sense than the gobbledygook plot White Noise ends up presenting.

The filmmakers were not content to simply proffer EVP as a done deal of incontrovertible communication with the dead. They go much further. Turns out, Jonathan can not only talk to the dead using EVP and ITC, he can even see and communicate with people days before they die the same way. This unusual skill appears to have something to do with his dead wife's wish that Jonathan become some kind of superhero who saves other women. Too bad Michael Keaton didn't get to keep the Batmobile for his future roles.

Believe me, I am more than willing to accept a complete fantasy/horror construct in a movie. But during its first half, White Noise acts like it wants to be a believable drama about paranormal exploration as a process of bereavement, and then, as if the filmmakers realized the movie was going nowhere fast, they start throwing in twists and turns that try to turn it into a completely different film. One minute it's a demonic killer ghost movie and the next it's a serial killer horror flick. People jump from balconies, and their houses and apartments are ransacked. But it is never clear why these events occur or who is behind them. Things happen at 2:30 A.M., though we never learn why. And three shadowy phantoms swoosh in and out of scenes occasionally to the screech of violins (so we know they must be sinister specters). Unfortunately, we never learn who they are or why they do what they do.

If you want to make a horror film about EVP, then make it. Just give us something halfway coherent to watch, and give the poltergeists a raison d'Ítre!

The use of technology as a conduit of evil or frightening occurrences is nothing new in film. The image of the sweet, ill-fated (on- and off-screen) poppet Heather O'Rourke, with her hand extended to an untuned television, saying "They're here," was cheesy but completely effective. It gives me the willies just thinking about it. Looking back on it, Poltergeist (1982) is a sterling exemplar of clarity, intelligence, and sophistication compared to the fatally muddled White Noise. Likewise, there are scores of recent examples of Asian horror films (like the worldwide phenomenon, Ringu /The Ring) that do a much better job delivering the spooky goods from seemingly innocuous domestic technology.

I'd advise watching (or re-watching) one of those films rather than subjecting yourself to White Noise.

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