Is the man who is tall happy – Michel Gondry animates Noam Chomsky. (SFF Film Review)

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Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? is showing at the Sydney Film Festival

You can grab your tickets here.

Sycophantism seems to be at the base of Michel Gondry’s examination of Noam Chomsky, one of the most famous contemporary intellectuals of our current age in his film Is the Man who is Tall Happy? and it is a real shame, because it prevents Gondry from making the most of his delightful medium, his interesting subject and that subjects interesting work. Besides hang out with Chomsky and earn his approbation before he dies, its difficult to know what the point and purpose of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? really is. Gondry seems as wide-eyed and fascinated that Chomsky isn’t anxious about dying as he is about the brain development theories of the grammarian, and the problem with that is eighty minutes just isn’t enough time to dip into everything Chomsky, so we get this hotchpotch mishmash of anecdotes dotted with forays into fascinating examinations and explanations of Chomsky’s work, which are by far the most interesting aspects of the film. Gondry mentions more than once that the is worried the robust looking Chomsky will die before he completes the film (Gondry is far more worried about Chomsky dying than Chomsky is, but that makes sense) and that implies there is something to be grasped that will be lost when the man is dead. However, because Gondry chose to hand animate every frame of the film (which is a deeply beautiful interpretation) it seems he’s put too little into the actual conversations between him and Chomsky, assuming that anything coming from the great man’s mouth will be astonishing enough to have us sit at the great sages knee desperate to catch any crumb that falls from his lips.

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This isn’t to say Is The Man Who is Tall Happy? isn’t a good film. I tend to lean toward this sort of film, I have a love of watching great minds flit through their stuff on camera, but the film comes alive when Chomsky is describing some of his work, and Gondry’s animation works alongside it. This technique excites and livens the mind, so that in watching, one ticks over into that immersion zone when everything seems to come at you with more clarity than it does during the daily routine, and Gondry’s animation is very enjoyable and thrilling to witness. Moments where Chomsky speaks about his work, such at the sequence from which the film takes its title, are brought to vivid life, and a film filled with this technique and a little more collaborative effort on Chomsky’s part would have been a thrilling document to have on the man. However, Gondry doesn’t animate to enhance meaning, he animates to avoid Chomsky’s criticism of film as a manipulative medium, so by his own admission, he ends up getting bogged down in the film, and returning to it more out of fear of it never getting completed rather than any inspirational desire to bring anything interesting from Chomsky via the film medium.

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This, as is to be expected, makes Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? more of a wasted effort than a profound insight, leaving one with wanting more with every aspect the film touches on. Surely the two most interesting aspects of Chomsky’s contributions are his intellectual discoveries and his political contributions, but neither of these topics are covered with much depth. More linguistic theory and generative grammar would have been gratefully received, but I’m sure many people are disappointed more wasn’t made of Chomsky’s political leanings, particularly his thoughts on Anarcho-syndicalism, which would have been thrilling to see animated as Chomsky himself led Gondry through the ideas. Less interesting is Chomsky’s relationship with his parents, wife and children, despite the dropping of bombs like “competition is counter-stimulating. It shouldn’t be there.  What is the point of being better than anyone else?” These things can be discussed in biographies long after we’ve lost Chomsky, but to hear him speak his own theories for the camera – now that’s something.

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As for the title itself, it refers to a problem first posed by Chomsky in Syntactic Structures, analysis of the performance of converting a complex sentence, such as “The man who is tall is happy”, into a question, “Is the man who is tall happy?” is a complicated verbal action that appears to be more instinctive than logical – why choose the second “Is” when the first “is” has made itself available? It implies a deep understanding of the way a sentence is constructed whose evolutionary etymology is currently unfathomable. Why did we develop this complex system, when everything is explained by bringing it back to its most simplistic state? These are the questions Chomsky deals with that Gondry’s drawings make immediately cognizant. However, if you are a Chomsky sycophant, as Gondry so clearly is, you may find the passion for Chomsky-fever exhilarating. For me, I found myself lamenting the loss of the film that was never made.

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