It’s not surprising that Michel Gondry confesses to what he calls a “childish” point of view: his movies tend to bounce around like an energetic kid trying to sit still. Whether it’s the “Sweded” remakes in Be Kind Rewind (08) or the evaporating dreamscapes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (04), Gondry shows us worlds in flux. From his hit-or-miss debut feature Human Nature (01) to his critically reviled take on The Green Hornet (2011), Gondry’s films suggest that repression and socialization are futile: when prompted, we’ll abandon ordinariness in the pursuit of some long-unfulfilled impulse.
His latest, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, is just as capricious, and opaque, as its title. Intrigued by the work of linguist Noam Chomsky, Gondry (who had visited and spoken at MIT) arranged to meet with the scholar and record their chats. What emerges is an earnest, if scattered, effort from a filmmaker jumping headfirst into a philosophical discussion with one of the world’s foremost thinkers on language. It’s hard not to admire Gondry’s impetuousness, even when the project falters or outright fails.
The film’s subtitle, “An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky,” is a bit misleading. The animated part is true: Gondry draws the bulk of the film himself, and his pictures have a patchwork, hand-made charm. The cartoons are fidgety, at times almost hyperactive: some images disappear before we can grasp them, while others linger on screen long after they’ve served their purpose. But for all its visual energy, Gondry’s film doesn’t have much of a back-and-forth dialogue. In contrast to his free-wheeling inventive aesthetic, Gondry the interviewer is extremely self-conscious. He’s silent for long stretches, and when he does speak up, he struggles to articulate his inquiries. Chomsky, meanwhile, winds up repeating himself, probably because the director did not provide sufficiently strong guidance. Gondry diligently interprets Chomsky’s often heady theories as lively doodles, but he gives off the impression of a frantic student.
In the rare moments of actual two-way discussion, Chomsky often seems mildly annoyed at the filmmaker’s naïveté. Gondry senses his subject’s frustration and quickly realizes that he’s in over his head (and says as much in textual asides). He frequently spirals into self-criticism, lamenting his lack of philosophical expertise and his difficulty expressing himself in English. The film takes a few breaks to show drawings of Gondry alone at his desk working at animating the film. He appears more eloquent and thoughtful in isolation, though his voice still comes across like that of a nervous public speaker clinging to his cue cards.
For his part, Chomsky becomes less prickly in the second half of the film, and by the end, he’s a patient, almost grandfatherly figure. But the relationship between the two men is never revelatory for either speaker, and they seem unable to strike up a rapport. If Gondry is overly nervous, Chomsky is emotionally distant. The film is at its strongest in the brief moments where the men bond over shared experiences: both plagiarized essays in their youth and, half-jokingly, harbor guilt as adults.
Gondry’s broad philosophical questions are often an ill fit with his more personal examinations of Chomsky. By Chomsky’s own admission, he’s the type of man who, in most social situations, would rather sit in a corner alone. To the question of what makes him happy, Chomsky scoffs at the “self-indulgence” of answering. And when Gondry asks him if he’d like to discuss his wife, Carol, who passed away in 2008, Chomsky solemnly says that he’d prefer not to broach the topic (but does, briefly). Poignant moments do emerge: Gondry says he feels compelled to see the film to completion because he’s terrified that his aging subject could die at any minute; Chomsky (now nearing 85) deflects these morbid concerns, discussing how he overcame a childhood fear of death. The upstart who has devoted his life to debating and defying the status quo seems remarkably at peace.
But Gondry’s film isn’t a character study, and 1992’s Manufacturing Consent (based on the book Chomsky co-wrote in 1988, and co-directed by the late Peter Wintonick) does a far better job at bringing the thinker’s theories to the forefront. Instead, Gondry does for Chomsky what he has done for other institutions such as The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney: he gives the theorist the Gondry treatment, showing us a portrait of Chomsky filtered through Gondry’s idiosyncratic (but respectful) perspective. Neither fish nor fowl, the film’s peppy cartoons construct a visual world around the rhythm of a voice—you might call it a Noam Chomsky music video.