The prospect of holding ones weight conversationally with one of the world's most prominent thinkers is daunting enough, but in sitting down with cognitive scientist and activist Noam Chomsky for the animated documentary “Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” director Michel Gondry chooses a personal path through the intellectual distance. Illustrating Chomsky’s ideas on linguistics and his childhood memories via Gondry’s hand-drawn 16mm animation, the film is at once dense and incredibly playful, packed with the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” director’s trademark visuals and Chomsky’s logical clarity whether explaining the emergence of language or simply what makes him happy. We sat down recently with Gondry to discuss the film, his decision to cut down his latest effort “Mood Indigo,” and why Roman Polanski shoots Paris better than any French director—but first Gondry described how his path crossed that of Chomsky in the first place.
What brought you to this project in the first place?
I had a relationship with MIT's Media Lab through this woman Michele Oshima, and was invited to be artist-in-residence. I was meeting a lot of people—students, teachers—and there were many fields that interested me in science, ones between art and science, which is really what I'm interested in. One day I realized he was teaching there, and I asked to have a meeting with him. He just takes meetings pretty easily; generally in the beginning you meet him for 20 minutes, and if it goes well you can see him again, and so I met him maybe five, six times before I suggested the idea.
At first I was a little shy and Michelle pushed me, but I had a video extract from ["Dave Chappelle’s Block Party"] and also an abstract animation piece, so I showed them both to Noam Chomsky and asked him if he would be interested in doing some interviews that could be illustrated with this type of animation. He said okay, so we set up a few days for interviews and we met two times with three or four months in-between so I could show him the work I had already done. But he's very easy to approach, especially if you're coming from a different field than his.
In the interviews and the animation, were you using the same 16mm Bolex camera in this film from your days in Oui Oui [Gondry’s early rock band, for whom he directed his first music videos]?
Yeah, the same kind. When I finished and took the last roll of film out of the camera I was kind of sad. I realized I might not do it again, because it's a format that…I mean film has been replaced by digital now, and when I started ["Is The Tall Man Man Happy?"] it still made sense. It makes sense now for animation because you can accumulate a lot of data into a film camera; it's very reliable, but it's from the past now. It'd be like shooting B&W film—it would be an artistic statement.
You talk with Chomsky about his theory of generative grammar, saying that we all have a basic set of linguistic tools through which to see the world. He also talks in his other works about an innate visual grammar; did speaking with him illuminate any questions of your unique visual perspective?
That's one of the things that got me interested in meeting with him in the first place. I had questions about the complexity of the world, and how we all have a short time on Earth but it all amounts to something really complicated. Maybe it's something that replaced my spiritual beliefs which have sort of gone away—to find a reason why we can work together in such an intricate way. And the innate vision of things seems to have a logic behind it. I remember taking a train to go to Paris when I was a kid, and you see all the buildings going by, and the intricacy of the city just on an architectural level. This got me to think, “How it is possible that all these masses of people find ways to work together in such a big city?” When I would talk to Chomsky though and try to explain those feelings I had, it was hard because he's quite matter of fact. If you talk about things that are a little too vaporous, he doesn't respond.
I noticed that. When you tried to suggest something that's not incredibly concrete, he'd try to rein you in.
Yes, and I think I understand that because I know, for instance, when Einstein put out relativity he had all sorts of artists and spiritualists who came to him with written proofs about their beliefs and he really didn't want to get attached to that. I think this is the same thing. In the end I didn't make my point about the way we make cities, because when I said that he took it a different way.
You weren't too familiar with Chomsky’s work, is that right?
Right. It was complicated because his books—that's one of the reasons that I wanted to do this film, was so I could give more people access to his theory of language. It was hard for me because when he writes in a very scientific way, and my memory is terrible so I forgot what these words mean, so I have to go back to the chapter before and see, “Oh, that means human behavior." Everything is like that.
So I couldn't catch up, but when he explained it—especially to me—it simplified it in a way that was still accurate. On the other hand, the fact that I was drawing 24 frames per second is something that he didn't do, but could respect. So his depth of knowledge was something that I could never equal, but my animation has a form of complexity—I could balance it out and feel not quite so overwhelmed and stupid. And the idea that I could play his sentences and draw frame-by-frame something that could amount to what he says was sort of reassuring. That was one of the concepts of the idea. I would match up the complexity of his speech to the complexity of animation which lets you absorb 24 different images per second.