Michel Gondry used a box of sharpies and a 16-mm camera to interview linguist Noam Chomsky in his new movie, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?. Gondry’s hand-drawn animation paints (pun intended) a personal, funny, and unpretentious portrait of Chomsky and his scientific ideas. The movie screened at the Berlin Film Festival a few days ago.
The director humorously opposes the “serious” science of Chomsky with his quirky images. The grand themes of the origin of language and purpose of life blend with the more sensitive and fragile side of Noam Chomsky talking about his deceased wife. The movie also suggests a very close personal relationship between Gondry and Chomsky, especially when the director says he wanted to hurry up and finish the movie before Noam (Gondry calls him by first name) dies. The imaginative cartoon-like quality of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy blend with the documentary side of the movie.
Through self-reference, Gondry also tells about the slow process of animating the movie, mocks his own heavy English accent, and discusses his camera and animation decisions.
Self-Reference in Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
The beginning of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy introduces several layers of self-reference somewhat similar to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. First, a live-action hand picks up a sharpie and draws a hand and a sharpie in a rectangular. The drawn hand then replaces the live-action hand, picks up the drawn sharpie and starts drawing the figure of Michel Gondry, who is drawing the film. The hand that was drawing Michel Gondry then gets attached to his drawn figure.
The sequence establishes a number of representations that detach the audience from the feeling of realism or truthful documentary images. Gondry says:
Film and video are both by their nature manipulative. The editor/director proposes an assemblage of carefully selected segments that he/she has in mind. In other words, the context becomes more important than the content. And, as a result, the voice that appears to come from the subject is actually coming from the filmmaker. And that is why I find the process manipulative.
The human brain forgets the cuts—a faculty specifically human, that, as I will learn, Noam calls psychic continuity. The brain absorbs a constructed continuity as a reality and consequently gets convinces to witness a fair representation of the subject. On the other hand, animation that I decided to use for this film, is clearly the interpretation of its author. If messages, or even propaganda, can be delivered, the audience is constantly reminded that they are not watching reality. So it’s up to them to decide if they are convinced or not.
The director questions reality in film, particularly documentaries. Even though documentaries have no script or fictional characters, the real-life people filmed are essentially playing the film version of themselves. Any video about Noam Chomsky thus will be “based on Noam Chomsky” or “inspired by real-life Chomsky.” For Gondry, the filmmaker is the main character, the omniscient narrator inevitably imprinting his presence in the film through the process of filming and editing.
Michel Gondry therefore enters his own movie—Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? begins with images of the director painting himself shooting his movie within the movie itself. The film calls attention to its own artifice through the scribble-like animated representation of the real.
The Real and the Animated in Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? constantly makes reference to its own “filmness”—the film depicts its own presence on screen, in a way almost as if it is an inevitable barrier between the audience and “the real” Chomsky and Gondry. This is especially present in the repeated shots of an animated projector screening filmed footage of Chomsky. In these sequences, the audience has a very limited view of the filmed Chomsky—usually the head and the shoulders in a tight fame. The sequences show very little of the surroundings, and therefore impede the audience’s ability to mentally picture the scenes.
The documentary side of the movie is mainly presented through the sound of Noam Chomsky talking, and the animated images stand in opposition to the documentary sound—therefore, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? constantly oscillates between the reality of documentary and the non-reality of animation. “Non-reality” is a more accurate description of the animation than “illusion” because an illusion usually purports to represent a version of reality that is plausible and could be mistaken for reality itself. The animation in Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is “non-reality” because it is intentionally child-like and unreliable in its representation—it clearly sets itself apart and opposes truthful realistic images.
Self-reference and the non-realism of the film also appear in the form of sound . In the scenes with filmed footage, the non-diegetic sound of a projector screening a film plays over—therefore calling attention to the “filmness” of the scene. The approach remains consistent throughout the entire film and for every instance of filmed footage of Chomsky.
There are only two instances of filmed footage without projector sound—a scene in the beginning of the film of Gondry , and a scene in the end of the movie in which a boy and a man repeat “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?”
In the first scene, the filmed footage is played over animation. Gondry directly references the film by talking about how slow the process of animating is. The he talks about a science experiment with a mouse. Meanwhile, the audience sees the dramatization of the experiment, only that the mouse is played by an human—therefore the scene mocks the scientific realism and its own credibility.
In the second scene, filmed footage takes up the entire screen without animation. A boy asks “Is the man who is tall happy?” His sentence is then repeated over and over again in a cartoon-like style. Therefore, the realism of the scene is undermined by the unrealistic use of sound. Eventually, the filmed footage appears over animation of a train, and therefore its documentary-like qualities are diminished again.
When Noam Chomsky and Michel Gondry first appear in a filmed sequence without any animation on screen (Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? has three live-action sequences without animation), they are filmed through glass. Thus, in a way they are again separated from their real-life selves, and the glass is like a screen they are projected upon. The feeling of filmness and unreality is enhanced by the projector sound.
The second time when Chomsky and Gondry appear in a filmed footage without animation, they are in the same studio, on the same table, but this time the camera is not behind the glass.
The frame of the scene, however, has rounded edges and crooked lines that make it look as if it was hand-cut, and therefore again undermining the realism of the scene. The projector sound plays in the sequence too. The scene is again split between reality and non-reality.
In a video that describes Noam Chomsky as one of the most important thinkers alive, Michel Gondry explains his technique for creating the animation. He starts each drawing with a small element such as a dot, takes a picture with his 16-mm camera, then adds new elements to the drawing, and takes a picture again. The process seems painfully slow, but the director explains: “The smaller addition you do, the smoother the motion will be.”
In the video, Gondry also explains his approach to pictures in Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?. Several times in the movie, the director uses photographs drawn over with animation. In order to get rid of the realism of the photographs, Gondry uses the negative, draws the animation, and then reverses it back—thus, the realism and documentary-like feel of the photograph is diminished.
Although the opposition reality-non-reality and documentary-animation is a consistent approach throughout Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy, the movie’s central themes are the discussions of philosophy, religion, linguistics, and the meaning of life between Chomsky and Gondry.
When the conversation comes to religion, Chomsky discusses his atheism and the emergence of religion due to people’s unwillingness to accept the meaninglessness of their existence. “I think you go from dust to dust and there is no meaning to your life.” To this seemingly serious and grave statement, Gondry responds with a flippant animation of people turning into trees and a humorous, child-like circle literally “turning” with the words “dust to dust.”
The mood of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is thereby constantly split between the serious and the humorous, the scientific and the silly, the documentary and the animated, the reality and the film.
In a similar way, when Chomsky talks about the death of his wife, Gondry draws what is supposed to be a recollection by Chomsky in which he and his wife happily ride bikes in the clouds. Thus, the contradiction between the serious and the sad creates an ambivalent and poignant atmosphere to Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?.
The best description of the movie is probably by Gondry himself when he honestly reveals his intent to finish the movie while Chomsky is still alive. About his own thoughts the director says, “This is childish and unscientific, but true.”