Even if you regularly read Open Culture, where we make a point of highlighting unusual intersections of cultural currents, you probably never expected a collaboration between the likes of Michel Gondry and Noam Chomsky. Gondry we’ve known as an imaginative filmmaker behind features like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind (as well as music videos for artists like Beck, Kanye West, and the White Stripes), one driven to pursue a Continental whimsy tempered by a dedication to elaborate, difficult-looking hand craft and an apparent interest in American culture.
Chomsky we’ve known, depending on our interests, as either a noted linguist or a controversial writer and speaker on politics, society, and the media. Gondry’s new documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, the project that brings them together at least, showcases both the less-seen purely philosophical side of Chomsky, and the also rarely acknowledged inquisitive, conversational side of Gondry. In the New York Times “Anatomy of a Scene” clip at the top, the director explains his process.
Naturally, Gondry went through a fairly unusual process to make the film, given that he based the whole thing on nothing more elaborate than a long-form in-office conversation with the MIT-based professor and activist. To get the footage he needed of Chomsky talking, he brought in — naturally — his vintage wind-up Bolex 16-millimeter film camera. He then wove those shots in with his also highly analog hand-drawn animation, which illustrates Chomsky’s ideas as he describes them — and as Gondry prods him for more. “The camera is very loud,” Gondry explains over a deliberately shaky frame, “and that’s why I have to draw it each time you hear it.” Just above, you can watch the film’s trailer, which offers Chomsky’s voice as well as Gondry’s. “Why should we take it to be obvious that if I let go of a ball,” we hear the interviewee ask, “it goes down and not up?” We also hear the interviewer admit that he “felt a bit stupid here,” but these two men’s considerable differences — in generation, in nationality, in sensibility, in their concerns, in the forms of their work — provide all the more reason to listen when they talk. And if you find the intellectual trip not to your taste, just behold the visual one.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.