Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Movie Review: Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky
Directed by: Michel Gondry.
Written by: Michel Gondry.
Featuring: Michel Gondry, Noam Chomsky.

At the beginning of Is the Man Who is Tall Happy, director Michel Gondry explains his decision to animate his film – which is basically just a number of discussions between him and Noam Chomsky – one of the most famous American intellectuals alive. Basically, Gondry “discovered” Gondry through a few DVDs he found in New York – which I suppose is how most people discover Chomsky. But Gondry was always aware that while those films are supposed Chomsky talking directly to the audience, the director is always making decisions on what to show, so in reality it is the director and Chomsky talking to the audience. By animating his film, Gondry hopes to call attention to this artificiality – or at the very least acknowledge it. Gondry also admits that animating things helped him – English is not his first language, so at times he can get confused when Chomsky starts talking about his complex ideas – animation helped him to make sense of it.

I’m not really sold on the first argument. I suspect that anyone who is going to willingly watch a movie where Noam Chomsky speaks for an hour and a half is already well aware of the various filters between Chomsky and his audience when directed by someone else. I’m not really sure on the second argument either – Gondry’s animation rarely offers much real insight into what Chomsky is saying – if Chomsky talks about dogs, Gondry draws dogs, if he talks about water, he draws water, etc. Yet whether or not I think Gondry’s reasons for animating his documentary about Chomsky makes sense or not, I’m still glad he did it. If nothing else, it at least gives us something entirely different to look at during the runtime of the movie than most documentaries do – especially ones focused entirely on one person or two people in conversation with each other, which most of the time would simply be a couple of talking heads. And Gondry has always been an inventive filmmaker and animator – even in his live action films – and he experiments throughout the film with different styles of animation which are always a joy to look at.

Chomsky is a gifted speaker, but he’s not a speaker who seems very interested in making things simple for other people to understand. He talks and talks throughout the movie, and it’s clear he’s said much of this countless times before, and he doesn’t seem very interested in deviating from what he has to say – he often dismisses Gondry’s questions, and talks about what he wants to talk about instead. For his part, Gondry tries to keep up, but admits to at times being confused and at other times just being flat out wrong. Yet the message that Chomsky is trying to convey in the film is relatively simple – and that is that we should be willing to be confused by what seems obvious. He talks a lot about children in the film – how they learn language skills – and you can sense a certain admiration he has for the ways children always ask why. Chomsky feels there is not enough questioning very basic assumptions we have in science and every other academic field – and that if people don’t start questioning what they think they know, then we’ll never move forward. There is not much talk of the politics which have gotten Chomsky into trouble over the years (Gondry dismisses claims that Chomsky is anti-American in his introduction, and leaves it at that) – and Chomsky mainly pushes aside questions of his personal life – including his long marriage. Chomsky wants to talk about his ideas, and that is what he gives Gondry.

The film is interesting throughout – but you pretty much have to go in wanting and expecting to listen to Chomsky speak for 90 minutes. In a way, the film is as review proof as any blockbuster – if you want to listen to Chomsky speak, you’ll see the movie no matter what I say – and if you don’t nothing I can say will change your mind. For me, it’s another interesting film for Gondry. No matter what Gondry does in his career, it is unlikely that he’ll ever top his 2004 masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He has tried a few times, taken a foray into more mainstream filmmaker, and some detours into documentary and neo-realism. He seems to still be searching for himself. That makes him an interesting director to watch. He doesn’t always make a great film – and Is the Man Who is Tall Happy is not great – but he rarely makes one that is wholly uninteresting.

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