Written and directed by Michel Gondry
On first blush, a so-called “animated conversation” between a documentary filmmaker and the esteemed linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky seems to exist solely so people can raise their eyebrows, perplexed. But then, when you realize that the filmmaker is Michel Gondry, the man behind such whimsical and quirky films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, it all begins to make a bit more sense. There’s, perhaps, not much more to Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? aside from Gondry’s hand-drawn interpretations of every topic Chomsky covers in a series of interviews that have been boiled down to about 90 minutes’ worth of footage, but his knack for visualization ends up being what makes the film so unique and special at all.
This is not to say that Chomsky, called upon to cover subjects such as his home life as a child, his recently deceased wife, and what initially inspired and inflamed his mind so about the mere concept of language, let alone the English language, is a dull interview subject. His spirited back-and-forth with Gondry–a smart man, to be sure, but one with a thick enough French accent that he’s self-conscious enough to assume it gets in the way of his points some of the time–is a welcome respite from most interview-based documentaries where there’s little disagreement or pushing back from either interviewer or interviewee. Gondry’s self-aware enough–and has enough distance from the original conversations after having spent over a year editing and animating the footage–to sometimes halt the discussion to better explain himself, which he was unable to do in the moment itself.
It is the animation, however, that makes Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? a pleasant curio, a delightful throwback to the old-fashioned documentaries teachers would show their students in the 1970s and 1980s. Gondry isn’t the only animator–there are a few others credited–but it’s hard not to see this as a totally homemade project, something he did in his spare time after the likely humbling failure of The Green Hornet. Some of the images are echoed throughout–to the point where Gondry says as much in his frequently handwritten narration, making sure the audience doesn’t feel like they’re experiencing deja vu–and although none of the images are as artful or vibrant as something from Disney or Studio Ghibli, it is important proof that animation is not specific to children’s entertainment.
In fact, in a number of scenes, Gondry and his work call to mind the animated interludes Terry Gilliam created for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, sometimes even inserting himself into the action, almost akin to a stop-motion animated figure interacting with the hand-drawn elements. As in those Python scenes, we often see cut-outs of real-life figures in the same shot as the animated versions of Chomsky, his father, his mother, his colleagues, and more. Perhaps because Gondry isn’t trying to be as anarchic in these moments as Gilliam ever was, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? feels less like a pale imitator and weirdly fresher than other current animation, by hearkening so far back in the past.
As a glimpse into Chomsky’s life, it’s maybe a bit too high-level, even if for understandable reasons. (Chomsky’s wife passed away only two years before the interviews took place in 2010, so his unwillingness to discuss her in more than cursory tone makes sense emotionally, even if it means we don’t get much insight into who he is on a less intellectual level.) And, because of the nature of the interviews, overseen by production supervisors and Chomsky’s assistant, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? ends in an extremely abrupt fashion, immediately after the linguist delves into a tangent tied to the film’s title. There may not have been a smoother way to end the film, but in the final seconds, it feels less like a movie for mass consumption and more of a love letter to Chomsky from a dedicated if oddball student. Somehow, that makes the movie just a bit more charming; like true labors of love, there is passion behind every moment of the animation, and every question and follow-up from Gondry. He may not always be able to dig deep into Chomsky’s psyche, or challenge this wise older figure, but with Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Michel Gondry presents a fascinating snapshot of what it’s like to have a mind swirling with such impenetrable thoughts.
– Josh Spiegel