Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Sacha Baron Cohen Reportedly Returning To Write, Produce, Star In & Direct The Freddie Mercury Biopic Sacha Baron Cohen Reportedly Returning To Write, Produce, Star In & Direct The Freddie Mercury Biopic Watch: James Bond Is Back In First Trailer For 'Spectre' Starring Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Dave Bautista, & More Watch: James Bond Is Back In First Trailer For 'Spectre' Starring Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Dave Bautista, & More Terrence Malick's Next Film With Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara & Michael Fassbender Reportedly Gets Titled Terrence Malick's Next Film With Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara & Michael Fassbender Reportedly Gets Titled Watch: Jake Gyllenhaal Gets Bloody And Bruised In First Trailer For Boxing Drama 'Southpaw' Watch: Jake Gyllenhaal Gets Bloody And Bruised In First Trailer For Boxing Drama 'Southpaw' New Infographic Lays Out Canonical 'Star Wars' Timeline With Films, TV And Books New Infographic Lays Out Canonical 'Star Wars' Timeline With Films, TV And Books First Official Image: Jesse Eisenberg As Lex Luthor In 'Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice' First Official Image: Jesse Eisenberg As Lex Luthor In 'Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice' Watch: First Trailer For Arnold Schwarzenegger's Zombie Pic 'Maggie' With Abigail Breslin Watch: First Trailer For Arnold Schwarzenegger's Zombie Pic 'Maggie' With Abigail Breslin Idris Elba Replaces Jamie Foxx In Harmony Korine's 'The Trap,' Al Pacino, Robert Pattinson, James Franco Also Join Idris Elba Replaces Jamie Foxx In Harmony Korine's 'The Trap,' Al Pacino, Robert Pattinson, James Franco Also Join Watch: Explore The Loneliness Of Sofia Coppola's Films With This Supercut Watch: Explore The Loneliness Of Sofia Coppola's Films With This Supercut 10 Terrible Films Starring Great Actors 10 Terrible Films Starring Great Actors Watch: Tom Hanks Acts Out His Filmography In 7-Minutes On 'The Late Late Show' Watch: Tom Hanks Acts Out His Filmography In 7-Minutes On 'The Late Late Show' Watch: Trailer For 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Unrated Blu-Ray Edition, Will Also Feature An Alternate Ending Watch: Trailer For 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Unrated Blu-Ray Edition, Will Also Feature An Alternate Ending New Directors/New Films Review: Jia Zhang-ke Produced 'K' Is A New Take On Franz Kafka's 'The Castle' New Directors/New Films Review: Jia Zhang-ke Produced 'K' Is A New Take On Franz Kafka's 'The Castle' The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More

Review: Michel Gondry’s Noam Chomsky Documentary ‘Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?’

The Playlist By Charlie Schmidlin | The Playlist November 20, 2013 at 5:16PM

Twice in 2010, director Michel Gondry met with Noam Chomsky for a series of conversations about the philosopher, linguist, and author’s childhood in Philadelphia and his theory of generative grammar. The film that resulted, “Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” gives no reason beyond curiosity for this collaboration, but it is all we need — how else should any worthy project be assembled? “If you’re willing to be puzzled, you’re able to learn,” Chomsky says at one point. To his credit (and without affectation), Gondry doesn’t cloak the fact that he is often perplexed by his subject. Because of his confusion though, we are able to learn quite a lot.
3
Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?

Twice in 2010, director Michel Gondry met with Noam Chomsky for a series of conversations about the philosopher, linguist, and author’s childhood in Philadelphia and his theory of generative grammar. The film that resulted, “Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” gives no reason beyond curiosity for this collaboration, but it is all we need — how else should any worthy project be assembled? “If you’re willing to be puzzled, you’re able to learn,” Chomsky says at one point. To his credit (and without affectation), Gondry doesn’t cloak the fact that he is often perplexed by his subject. Because of his confusion though, we are able to learn quite a lot.

Part of that immersion is due to the film’s one-off nature. Without sounding rude, no one specifically asked Gondry to create a 16mm animated documentary about one of society’s most prominent thinkers. Rather, as he explains, he was looking for a project to occupy his free time while editing “The Green Hornet” and producing “Mood Indigo.” Inspired by picking up Chomsky’s work in a New York bookshop, Gondry decided to first record talks with the professor at MIT, where Chomsky teaches, and then use those discussions as a springboard for animated explorations of their content.

Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?

This decision is perhaps the most crucial: it ensures that newcomers to Chomsky’s linguistic work will find much to enjoy, while more fluent followers can discover a unique reading of those concepts. We aren’t seeing Chomsky’s ideas brought to life in the film. Instead, it is Gondry’s perception of Chomsky’s ideas, which means they are playful, a tad crude, and as elaborately rendered as befitting a man poring over 24 hand-drawn frames a second.

When exploring ideas such as whether a tree branch that produces a new tree when planted is the same as the tree from which it was cut, Gondry uses bold pastel and neon colors, on-screen text, and stock photography to clarify. Elsewhere he illustrates an experiment on memory using mice by showing himself dressed up in a life-size mouse costume, scouring a hallway for cheese. The film is a reverse “Drunk History” — surreal, humorous visualizations of sober ideas with their own internal logic.

A great deal of pleasure also comes from Chomsky’s demeanor toward Gondry. Their meetings come off like the coolest afterschool office hours session on earth, but the professor’s treatment of his “student,” as it were, ranges from third grade to college-level depending on the topic. On more than one occasion, Chomsky shuts a flustered Gondry down with a blunt “that’s not right,” and crossed wires also result from the director’s decision to converse with Chomsky in English over his thick French accent.

Witness the unfortunate mix-up over the word “eel” and “yield.” Or the fed-up “mm-hmm” that Chomsky emits after he lets Gondry excitedly explain teleportation — it may be the greatest delivery in the film. Being the director, Gondry has the final word on what to include, but thankfully, as he says in the film, omitting the moments where he is wrong-footed would be a disservice to the gems from Chomsky that bookend them.

Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?

Some may be wincing at the thought of spending 88 minutes with Gondry’s particular visual sense, no matter the worth of the words behind it. To that group there is little use pushing the film further for consideration, other than to say Gondry’s respect for Chomsky focuses his work tremendously. And not all of “Is The Man…” is involved with theory. Chomsky’s childhood meets it halfway: he speaks of growing up with an academic “Zionist” father in Philadelphia; his experience in a progressive grade school; the terror of race riots during WWII; and other details that serve to fill in a rounded picture of the fiercely guarded but amiable man.

Mortality also informs the proceedings, as Gondry expresses anxiety over Chomsky possibly passing away before he is able to show him the film. When asked if he’s worried about his health, the professor responds, “Doctors are, I’m not.” And while it would be easy to paint Chomsky as having a scientific, pragmatic view on death, one also gets the sense that to consider it would simply be too hard.

In the sole musical portion of the film (scored to Mia Doi Todd’s “I Gave You My Home”), Gondry pays tribute to Chomsky’s wife of 59 years, Carol, who died in 2008. The moment comes close to the end, perhaps 10 minutes after Gondry’s approach starts to wear thin, but it wholeheartedly coheres the film. And in the sensitivity and adoration taken to the presence of Carol—a brilliant Harvard language professor in her own right—it seems that perhaps, for the first time, the two men might finally be on the same page. [A-]

This article is related to: Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Michel Gondry, Reviews, Review, Documentary


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


Check out Indiewire on LockerDome on LockerDome

E-Mail Updates