I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Change the World (Regarding Car Alarms, Anyway): Noise

by Tom Winkelspecht
Oct. 7, 2013

There’s a lot to be upset about. Disease, the economy, terrorism. Twice a week I can hear several squirrels chew their way closer and closer to me through the walls. These are the facts of life: they are accepted and allowed for. They are immutable.

Maybe not. As we follow David Owen (Tim Robbins) down his strange path we, if nothing else, are given a chance to question why and how often we allow ourselves to have to put up with a lot of bullshit. Daily, we force ourselves to put up with irritants, occasionally venting our feelings, then chiding ourselves for a lack of self-control. Just so, Owen forces himself to try to make peace with the din that surrounds him, fighting a series of losing battle of placations against petty and unnecessary aggravations before surrendering himself wholesale to combating them.

Not to say that it isn’t worthwhile to struggle mightily against the bullshit. Noise makes a very persuasive and even logical argument for Owen’s cause-that noise pollution is a problem in real need of solving. It is not necessary, the movie ultimately argues, to continue to put up with something simply because everyone else has.

So, haunted by thousands of shrieking alarms every hour of the day, Owen becomes The Rectifier, the snipper of battery cables who fights the din of the city where he finds it. Sure, Owen tries restraint. He tries going through the system, he tries life in the country. Despite everything, Owen cannot help but to fight his one-man campaign.

It is fun to watch an upwardly mobile yuppie become unhinged over trivial shit. However this reactionary, visceral feeling is underutilized. The acute rage of Owen is only glimpsed at. The scenes of Owen stalking a squalling klaxon through the city, or delivering a fast-balled brick through a window with child-like focus on the act are too few and far between. Instead, the film follows Owen as he spends most of his time flitting from attractive woman to attractive woman, having detached, half-understood conversations on French philosophy, and winning his victories against slimy politicians through the legal system. All are undoubtedly, nice, mature things. Very middle class.

Very middle class, indeed, and a lot less fun than watching Owen scrape paint, slash tires, and smash in windshields possessed by the same self-righteous, megalomaniacal sense of assurance that served Taxi Driver’sTravis Bickle. The swollen sense of justice is a little diluted, since Owen is really only combating what amounts to a minor annoyance.

Just as his very adult-like plans of a vote-in ballot petition are beginning to bear fruit, Owen is snookered by the mayor and backslides into his guerilla activism. His masterstroke involves the extensive modifications to a car alarm system and the audial bear-baiting of several elected officials, including the mayor who stymied his legal efforts. Owen wins, of course, both a huge moral and legal victory; a precedent is established for excessive noise as assault. He reunites with his family and flushed with victory, plans to return to his quiet and comfortable life, his actions having been vindicated.

This Owen – of the small claims courts, of legal formalities – lacks the fervor of The Rectifier. Even his biggest coup is effectively a dispassionate political protest. It’s never as much fun as The Rectifier with the ball peen hammer, despite The Rectifier’s lack of accomplishment. Noise struggles between which aspect of Owen it wants to throw its support behind. Ultimately, both are necessary.

The world needs angry people who will go around pissed off enough to smash things despite any system saying they shouldn’t. It also needs those with the patience to work and manipulate the system. Noise’s hero tries for both.

The topic might not be as all-encompassing as world hunger, but it’s something the protagonist encounters daily. It’s something he can, and does, fix. He addresses a problem that people seemingly weren’t aware was a problem, let alone one that could be and should be fixed. By the end of the movie, he’s offered as inspiration. He becomes a hero for effecting change through the proper channels, and he becomes an example to future reactionary activists.

It is not just the listless citizenry of New York that the movie aims at inspiring. Noise wants its audience to feel that they too can effect change. It is noteworthy that Noise’s director, Henry Bean, admits to having been arrested and jailed for the sort of hijinks featured in the movie. So what?

If Bean can do it, why not you? If Owen can, why not you? It’s a long way to go for a rather simple message: be the change you want to see. Even if he is a bit of a self-righteous prig, Owen is still the every-man, the average citizen who gets tired of fighting unresponsive red tape and tries to fix things on his own. Activism isn’t hard. All that’s required is a healthy level of disdain and the appropriate tools.

Tom Winkelspecht lives in New Jersey. He is currently in a creative writing graduate program.  The rest of his time is spent between watching movies, plotting his return to Chicago, and writing. He can be found in the usual places: Tumblr and Twitter.