by Dan Hamilton
Director Michel Gondry’s latest work, which is a film-length interview with linguist, philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky, falls into the category of films that take high-profile thinkers as their subjects and aim to use the medium of film to convey a set of ideas. These films have been reviewed to a wide range of reactions, including everything from praise to apathy.
Gondry, previously known for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep,” begins “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” in the style of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, by showing his cards immediately. Brecht’s style as a playwright, part of his “Epic Theater,” sought to constantly remind the audience that they were not viewing reality, but rather the projection of a particular mind expressed through a story. In this fashion, Gondry reminds the audience at the outset that he is a filmmaker and what the viewer is about to see is a product of his vision, editing, selection and projection. He explains why he is making the film and that the viewer should understand they are subject to what he calls the “manipulative” nature of film making and viewing.
The title of the film, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” refers not to a specific question Chomsky answers, but is used to explain a particular linguistic idea. As Chomsky is interviewed, Gondry has created animation, which is primarily what the viewer sees throughout the film’s duration. The animation has a simple, neon-heavy quality and it is apparent that the images are Gondry’s personal, eccentric sketches, although that doesn’t detract from the place they hold in the film.
Gondry plays the part of a curious interviewer who admits upfront that he feels nervous around the towering intellectual. Because of this innocence, the discussion takes on a character, not of two men in an ivory tower massaging words and ideas for themselves, but rather of a space where Chomsky must explain each idea, and these range from the difficult, regarding the nature of how we perceive the world, to ideas more simple and accessible. The complicated ideas are where Gondry’s animation works particularly well, because it gives form to Chomsky’s abstractions.
In contrast to another recent film of this type, director Sophie Fiennes’ “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” featuring Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” is far more effective. Fiennes’ film employs popular culture and imposes Zizek within scenes of classic movies, where he then critiques them to explain his ideas on ideology. “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” works better because it understands its own confines. It acknowledges that it is dealing with difficult material and will only appeal to a niche audience. “Pervert’s Guide” didn’t seem to have this self-awareness and it comes off trying to do more than it is able to. It also lacks the quality of having an interviewer present, which leaves Zizek to talk amongst himself about his famously difficult ideas on ideology, which become redundant and monotonous to the viewer.
This film will appeal to more than just “Chomsky groupies.” “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy” is rewarding for anyone interested in the world of ideas and curious about linguistics or philosophy. It primarily explores linguistic and philosophical ideas, and yes, includes a bit of biographical information on Chomsky.
One thing that is particularly lacking for those more interested in the activist side of Chomsky is any sort of political or social critique in the film. The exception here is a discussion of the Romani people and their treatment in France, and a small discussion on the Kurds, but Gondry quickly moves Chomsky onto “something less depressing.” One cannot fault a 90-minute film for not capturing every aspect of a man who has been active as a writer and thinker for more than half a century.
At its core, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” is a wonderful blend of ideas, linguistics, philosophy, biographical information, and to complement it all, Gondry’s quirkiness.
Dan Hamilton is a member of Chicago DSA and organizer of their monthly reading group. He holds an MA in Social and Political Thought from the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.
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