What happens when one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and one of the dreamiest film directors of the 21st century meet each other? That is the starting point of the quirky documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, in which director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)) employs wonderful animations to depict the conversations he had with world famous linguist Noam Chomsky some years ago. Expect a whimsical confrontation between scientific concepts and saccharine creativity. Gondry visited Chomsky in the postmodern office buildings of the American MIT university, edifices that are described by Chomsky as a 3D version of a Mondriaan painting. If Chomsky’s workplace is reminiscent of a Mondriaan, then this documentary is the audiovisual equivalent of an Escher lithograph: playful and intriguing at first, but after a while you get somewhat lost and weary in a slippery universe.
Yet, the initial idea behind Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? has definitely been well thought out. The film’s shape clearly reflects the interesting opposition between the two interacting characters: the informative aspect of a documentary and the fantastical content of animation mingle into a lively whole. This immediately gives rise to some deeper questions that the film tries to address: Do we rather think in language or in images? How can scientific concepts and theories properly be represented in images? And what about metaphorical expressions? It is, for example, amusing to see how several figurative utterances in the interview are often depicted in literal ways by Gondry’s intuitively understandable animations.
The animations are all drawn by hand. Gondry frequently uses old photographs and twinkling archive footage as backdrops onto which he releases his drawing talent. The pencil and chalk drawings that constitute this documentary are particularly colorful and childlike. The director crams all scenes with geometric shapes, mechanical gears and transforming creatures. Everything is possible and allowed, but as a result the nature of the animations can also get way out of hand sometimes. Just like several of Gondry’s previous film projects, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? displays a dangerously high level of handicraft. The soundtrack is mostly filled with electronic bleeps and a soft buzz. Are these perhaps also the sounds of our own brain activities?
Chomsky’s brain activity is still working well, by the way. Even at the age of 85, the renowned linguist and philosopher still manages to leave a clear impression. His advice to all younger generations can be summarized in a brief but enthusiastic way: ‘Be puzzled about what seems to be obvious, and think about the questions you don’t know the answers to’. Gondry questions Chomsky about a wide variety of things, from education and the history of science to astrology and religion. However, the most gripping moments in the interview occur when Chomsky talks about more sensitive topics, like the death of his wife or the current migration problems. It is then that you catch glimpses of the imperfect man behind the highly intellectual scientist. Unfortunately, these moments are rather scarce. Generally, Chomsky gives long and tough reasonings about old scientists and classical thought experiments. The fact that he regularly loses sight of Gondry’s initial questions and slips into murmured monologues can certainly be irritating.
Gondry, too, could have kept his documentary a bit more in check. When the director, after yet another theoretical explanation by Chomsky, honestly addresses the viewer with the words ‘As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here’, this works quite charming. However, that doesn’t mean that Gondry has managed to give his film a balanced structure and rhythm. After an outright messy end sequence, it is clear that Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? frustrates as much as it inspires, and ultimately doesn’t surpass its own cinematographic peculiarity.