Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
by Hope Madden
There are some who would take an interview with Noam Chomsky – philosopher, cognitive scientist, linguist, all around smartypants – and try to simplify it, make it easier for the audience to understand.
Not Michel Gondry. The French filmmaker best known for the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind pairs Chomsky interviews with his own wildly abstract, hand-drawn animation with a purpose that is certainly not clarity.
In his documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Gondry invites the audience to puzzle through the words of the genius who believes the world is a mystery and that we are all the better for it. The director, therefore, goes out of his way to ensure that we are befuddled, because, according to Chomsky, that’s the only way to go through life. If we believe we understand, then we don’t probe, question, challenge.
So, Gondry creates a challenge. Indeed, the obstacles to comprehensibility are either alarming or hilarious. Abstract animation can be tough to understand. So can Gondry’s thick French accent. So can Chomsky. Gondry piles on with intentionally distracting camera noise and, on occasion, the obscuring volume of background music.
If all this seems frustrating, strangely enough, that’s not the effect Gondry achieves. Eventually, the filmmaker’s wonder and the subject’s challenges to puzzle out what’s happening wash over you, and you let go of your own instinct to predict what comes next in order to comprehend what is happening. You achieve your own sense of wonder at the befuddlement of it all.
The secret is Gondry himself, who is trying and failing to keep up. It’s endearing, but it’s also a relief. You’re not the only one.
People looking for an informative document of Chomsky’s life will be wildly disappointed. This film is not about what you want to see. It’s about what Gondry always wanted to ask Noam Chomsky if he ever got the chance. Plus cartoons!