Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?
Michel Gondry and Noam Chomsky examine the complexities of self-expression and conversation
Two men with unusual skillsets – a filmmaker whose work incorporates both mathematical precision and handknitted whimsy, and a scientific thinker who is also an impassioned social and political activist – discuss childhood, language, meaning and love in this playful animated interview. Prompted by a clearly nervous Michel Gondry, who has sketched animations over and around footage of the encounters, octogenarian Noam Chomsky links tales of his own upbringing and career history with some of his theories and philosophies, particularly around the subject of language development.
Even Gondry’s biggest fans would probably concede that excessive cutesiness is a constant risk in his universe, and certainly this film is busting out all over with felt-tip drawings and shambly self-deprecation. Of the visual noodling, there is a little too much, although the bulk of it is pretty delightful. The emphasis, however, on moments when Gondry expressed himself poorly or Chomsky misunderstood him isn’t just him playing the little-lo-fi-me card; it ties in with some of the film’s themes about how communication works, and how meaning forms through and beyond language. Gondry effectively visualises the process of trying to understand something, and the frustration of having a conversation swivel off-point. The pauses to recap also help the non-expert among us to keep up with the Chomsky brain. Some of the film’s best and most revealing moments see Gondry trying to get a slightly wary Chomsky to leave his comfort zone of cerebral conjecture and open up about his emotional life.
The ideas outlined aren’t fully developed; this isn’t that kind of film, though it will prompt further reading in many. Its more direct function is to gently examine the complexities of self-expression and conversation – and to remind us how pleasing it is when major directors allow themselves the time out to pursue little personal preoccupations.