I’m generally a pretty big fan of French filmmaker Michel Gondry; his 2006 film The Science of Sleep, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, is certainly one of my top ten favorite movies (yes, there is a list, I will post it here at some point, and with annotations). But some of Gondry’s outings (the aforementioned Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) are distinctly more fruitful than others (like, say, The Green Hornet, which I haven’t seen but which I still feel pretty comfortable dismissing). His latest film, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky, is a distinctly mixed bag. Now, the subject is certainly engaging—I’m always happy to listen to Noam Chomsky talk, even if it’s the same set of speeches that he uses in all his interviews (if you ask a person the same questions, you’re likely to get the same answers)—but Gondry’s method of turning what could have been a dry depiction of Chomsky talking to/at him into something more colorful is somewhat dubious: Gondry has chosen to make an animated film of the conversation.
It goes like this: Gondry asks a question of Chomsky (these interviews were filmed in two separate sessions in 2010) and Chomsky answers, and these exchanges are rendered into quirky and hyperactive animation sequences reminiscent in their shakiness of the “squigglevision” of the ‘90’s Comedy Central show Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. So, while Chomsky is explaining some complex business about how we know things, or about his universal grammar, there’s shaky, hyperkinetic shit bouncing all over the screen, supposedly illustrating what Chomsky’s saying, and although some of it may be beautiful in its own right, it’s distracting as fuck. I came to long for the brief interludes where Gondry just presented live-action footage of Chomsky talking. I don’t want to fault a person for trying something different and animation of this sort can certainly be gratifying—it was Gondry, after all, who gave us the lego-animation video for the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” and a bunch of memorable Bjork videos—but it seems out of place in the context of a man talking with restraint and tranquility about epistemology. One expects a music video to be hyperactive; one does not expect the same of Noam Chomsky.As for what Chomsky says, it’s reasonably interesting—and it’s somewhat refreshing to see him given a platform to focus on his linguistic work, without too much emphasis on the politics, about which anyone likely to see this movie is probably already well-informed. Gondry, to his credit, seems to have done his homework on Chomsky’s theories, and is generally able to keep up. His English isn’t great, but it’s interesting to watch the world’s greatest linguist struggle to understand the filmmaker and vise-versa (there is an especially confusing to-do about the word “endowment,” which Gondry pronounces more like “entrement”). And Gondry does get one revealing question/answer exchange. He asks Chomsky, “What makes you happy?” which I suspect is not something that the linguist is usually asked. And Chomsky’s answer is remarkably depressing, “Well, you know… kids, grandkids… I don’t really indulge much.” One recalls that Arundhati Roy once wrote about “the loneliness of Noam Chomsky.”
Now if you’re excuse me, I’m going to go watch the video for The White Stripes’ “The Hardest Button to Button.”