Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? Chomsky doesn’t know

December 5, 2013

Noam Chomsky, linguist at the Massachusetts Institue of Technology and notable political activist, is often considered one of the finest thinkers alive. Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, is generally considered to be a bit odd. Together, they make an unusual conversational pair, but that’s exactly what Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? gives us—their conversation.

Gondry starts this documentary off in a strange way: over an animated loop of himself animating. He explains his reasons not only for making the documentary but also his choice in presenting the film as drawings: since film is inherently manipulative, and he wants his audience to be able to draw their own conclusions, he presents his conversation with Noam Chomsky not with raw footage of the event, but instead as his own artistic interpretation. This way, viewers know the images on the screen are created and don’t form snap judgments. This explanation is heady, and perhaps excessively meta for a mere two minutes in, but it sets the tone.

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? proceeds to the conversation with Chomsky, with a few after-the-fact interjections by Gondry.

Almost the entire film is set to Gondry’s distinctive animation—simple images, sometimes cartoony and fun, other times resembling a M.C. Escher drawing in motion. Even though some images are repetitive, they added a lot of color to what could easily be a drab subject.

Again, Chomsky and Gondry are not the most intuitive duo, nor the most compelling. Gondry admits more than once in the film that he doesn’t entirely understand the concepts Chomsky brings up, and he sometimes stumbles over words through his thick French accent. This leaves a lot of the talking up to Chomsky, with mostly just questions and brief interjections from his partner.

The whole film rests on Chomsky’s strength of personality and great intellect and understanding. He tackles a great variety of subjects—his life, his views on knowledge and education, linguistics—and does so with the expertise and fascination you’d expect from someone who has published over one hundred books. He’s a compelling enough character to base a film around, even if it is just a few sessions of musings, and it’s not hard to see why Gondry would want to film him. After all, Chomsky explains, he’s not getting any younger.

Though the subtitle of the film is An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky, the whole thing plays less like a conversation and more like a lecture, albeit one with prominent visual aids. Though this may sound dreadfully boring, somehow, it works. Chomsky’s words and Gondry’s images form something of their own conversation, with Gondry responding to and interpreting Chomsky after the fact and, in one instance, vice versa.

The two men’s styles are very different. Chomsky’s speaking gives off the air of a particularly knowledgeable but weary college professor, and Gondry’s drawings resemble elaborate doodles you would find in a wayward high school notebook. It’s a complementary pairing, with Gondry illustrating Chomsky in a charming way, and Chomsky giving Gondry’s shattered creativity focus and something to build off of.

This film is really an odd one and it won’t please everyone. People looking for their Noam Chomsky fix might find the animations distracting or ill-fitting, and people looking for quirky drawings might not be compelled by the subject matter. Regardless, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? is, like its title, strange, a little clumsy, perhaps off-putting, but interesting, if nothing else.

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