Is the Tall Man Happy?
"It is common sense, but it happens to be false." or Michel Gondry vs. Noam Chomsky
On the feature-length animated documentary Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky (2013)
Is the man who is tall happy?An animated conversation with Noam Chomsky is not exactly a documentary film. Rather, it is a conversation between a mismatched pair of hyperactive minds, grumpy science and dreamy art, a man of words and a man of images.
Gondry starts the film with a monologue on the nature of documentary films, on the manipulative nature of editing and adding special effects which blur the lines between what has been said and the author's subjective commentary. It may be saved through a medium; he uses animation as an obvious subjective addition to the conversation which has no clear narrative structure. Gondry asks the questions and Chomsky replies; at the same time, Gondry uses his own narration to paint an associative and animated train of thought which thinks in images and explains the talked-about abstract thoughts. He also uses animation to do a meta-turn towards the spectator: when he fails to understand something, when he is confused and when he excuses himself for his pronounced French accent or for the poor animation. He uses personally hand-drawn colourful drawings to talk about the film's inception and about the decisions steering the conversation. He admits to his own ignorance and clumsiness, employing an extremely humorous approach in order to use it for his own benefit. The child-like doodles on a black surface or on old photographic negatives, which from time to time veer into psychedelic pulsating landscapes, try to follow the theories expounded on by Chomsky, all the while mocking their own impatient nervousness and limited capacity for expression. Despite Gondry filming Chomsky with a Bolex 16mm camera, he rarely uses the footage and stubbornly insists on sticking to the audio recordings of the conversation and his animation.
"As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here," Gondry admits at one point, even though he took the model student approach and studied the various themes he wanted to talk about with the polymath: on the nature of science, on the origins of the history of science, on epistemology, religion and language. At times, Gondry, much like the spectator, falls pray to mental fatigue. When he feels like Chomsky kindly goes out of his way to once again explain a concept, so as to help Godry understand, the artist, feeling hurt, resorts to recycling already used animation, since in his words, he feels "tired". At other times, he asks his interlocutor to talk about a particular topic from a purely egoistic and flighty artistic whim, since "he could animate it beautifully".
The conversation is therefore a unique portrait of both Chomsky and Gondry. Interestingly, Gondry completely avoids the topic of politics. Even the topics they do talk about are not what Gondry would like the spectator to see; he is more interested in the though processes themselves and the person inhabited by these complex processes. Chomsky often rejects his ideas and reflections with a kind-hearted explanation, saying that it simply isn't true, but in doing so, never sounds patronising. Gondry's resulting hurt feelings, which he expresses by simply crossing out his animated alter-ego or covering it with neurotically repeated repetitions of the word "trivial", try and find an ally in the spectators who often find themselves before the pleasantly difficult task of following and focusing on what is being said and drawn on the screen.
But Gondry never truly feels insulted; he even revels in his own ignorance. He is aware that the intersection of their thoughts and (in)comprehension is exactly what has helped him draw a portrait of a thinker and man, whose core we can detect in his narrative about his own upbringing and education. Chomsky went to a kind of "free-thinking" primary school where there were no grades and competitiveness, only encouragement to think; at the same time, he would spend his childhood evenings at home, in the spirit of pure humanistic classic science by reading old Renaissance Hebrew texts.
***You can see the film in Kinodvor on Saturday, 12 December, at 8 p.m.