By Don Simpson | November 20, 2013
Director: Michel Gondry
As soon as I heard that the man who wrote and directed some of my favorite films of the 2000s (Michel Gondry) was making a documentary about my favorite contemporary philosopher (Noam Chomsky), I was convinced that it was a match made in celluloid — well, digital — heaven. Gondry wanted to record a series of video interviews with Chomsky, knowing full well that the 80-something MIT linguist would probably not live forever. Obviously intimidated and in awe of Chomsky, Gondry seems almost like a star-struck young boy meeting his hero for the first time.
During the film, Gondry repeatedly gets lost inside in his own head, dragging us down the rabbit holes with him. From the get-go, Gondry tries to wrap his brain around philosophical questions that are much too large for a 90-minute film, but that is sort of his point. Maybe. Well, at least I think it is. For instance, Gondry begins with a discussion of the relationship between the [mis]representation of the Truth and documentary filmmaking. Within this diatribe, Gondry makes a strong case for why he has chosen to animate and manipulate the interview footage, rather than presenting it in its standard talking head format. While Gondry does not intend to suggest that Chomsky is lying, he is saying in his own roundabout kind of way that none of the statements to be found within Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? — whether said by Chomsky or Gondry — should be considered as absolutes. In other words, while documentaries are often interpreted to be representations of the Truth, this is a documentary about thoughts and ideas, not about absolute Truths.
By way of animated illustrations, Gondry allows us to see the inner-workings of his thought processes. So we see how he gets from point A to point T to point Q and then back to point A again. All the while, Gondry’s thought processes also acts as a mirror to Chomsky’s own surrealistic ramblings. Gondry sometimes attempts to steer the conversion, such as when he poses the occasion question about Chomsky’s personal biography, but most of the time he gives Chomsky the freedom to take their conversation in any direction that he pleases. Gondry is keenly cognizant of the fact that he would have editorial control over the finished product, so he could curtail or redirect Chomsky’s ramblings during post production. So, it seems to be practically self-deprecating whenever Gondry opts to showcase various moments of confusion and/or miscommunication that stem from his own clumsiness with the English language. At first these moments seem to be disagreements — with Gondry growing increasingly embarrassed and frustrated, while Chomsky seems almost confounded by the Frenchman’s naiveté — but they turn out to be just simple misunderstandings. Most directors would have left this footage on the proverbial cutting room floor, but Gondry knows that Chomsky enjoys thinking about communication and the transference of ideas, and these disjointed divergences seem to amuse Chomsky. These awkward (at least for Gondry) moments also convince Chomsky to slow down and simplify his thoughts, making his theories more consumable for the 99.9% of us who may not think on the same heightened level of intellect as he does.
If I expected Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? to be a biographical documentary about Chomsky, I would have been disappointed; but I knew that with Gondry at the helm, this film would be anything but traditional. The resulting film has unique insight about documentary filmmaking, the interview process, conversations and [mis]communication. By the end of the film, we have probably learned more about Gondry’s thought processes than Chomsky’s theories, because these conversations with Chomsky serve as a conduit for Gondry to dig deeper into his own mind. Ah, so this is where Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep came from…