As an arts major who doodled my way through every required science course in high school and college, I am deeply gratified by filmmaker Michel Gondry’s approach to documenting the ideas of Noam Chomsky. Having filmed about three hours worth of interviews with the activist, philosopher, and father of modern linguistics in a sterile MIT conference room, Gondry headed back to his charmingly analog Brooklyn digs to spend three years animating the conversations. It’s nice to see a filmmaker of his stature using books to jerry-rig his camera set up. At one point, he huddles on the floor, puzzling over some sequential drawings on 3‑hole punch paper. Seems like the kind of thing most people in his field would tackle with an iPad and an assistant.
Gondry may have felt intellectually dwarfed by his subject, but there’s a kind of genius afoot in his work too. Describing the stop-motion technique he used for Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, he told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, “I have a lightbox, and I put paper on it, and I animate with Sharpies, color Sharpies. And I have a 16-millimeter camera that is set up on a tripod and looks down, and I take a picture. I do a drawing and take a picture.”
A pretty apt summation—watch him in action above—but the curiosity and humanity so evident in such features as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep is a magical ingredient here, too. He attributes biological properties to his Sharpie markers, and takes a break from some of Chomsky’s more complex thoughts to ask about his feelings when his wife passed away. He doesn’t seem to mind that he might seem a bit of a schoolboy in comparison, one whose talents lie beyond this particular professor’s scope.
As Chomsky himself remarks in the trailer, below, “Learning comes from asking why do things work like that, why not some other way?”
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is available on iTunes.