Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?

by Drew Martin
I just saw a film I had been hesitating to watch, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? - an interview prompted by french filmmaker Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind)  and Noam Chomsky, who is most popular for his political commentary and activism, and particularly for his book Manufacturing Consent.

Chomsky, however, is by education and career a linguist and cognitive scientist, which is what Gondry seems most interested in exploring, not because of a simplistic interest in languages but rather that deeper reasoning behind language as a cognitive tool.

The audio of the movie is the dialogue between Gondry and Chomsky, with occasional movie footage of either Chomsky alone or Chomsky and Gondry in the same frame, from the interview.

The title of the film comes from an language structure example Chomsky explains to Gondry about taking a sentence such as The man who is tall is happy....and about asking a child to make it into a question, which they consistently, and correctly reshape as Is the man who is tall happy?

To say that what Gondry visually creates for this movie is animation is doing him a disservice. Perhaps it can be seen as an illustration of the conversation, and I think Chomsky probably thought it was cute in that way, but Gondry is really doing something much deeper than that. At times his animation runs as a visual language parallel to the dialogue. It steps in as subtitles to aid his heavy accent, complete with edits and asides. Most importantly, its fluctuation of different purposes makes you really attuned to the visually cues.

I liked how Gondry tries to explain to the viewer the point of his unanswered questions. Chomsky is often a one-way street. He is literally a know-it-all, and seems to have little tolerance for what he views as inferior thinking. But Gondry has a lot of important questions, which I wished were answered by Chomsky.

That being said, I was quite surprised by one section when Chomsky was talking about the Frank Gehry designed building they were sitting in at MIT (pictured here at bottom). He said there are no right angles where the walls meet in the building. He offered what a friend explained; that it was as if they were in a three dimensional Piet Mondrian, which he used for his own analogy. How can someone so smart make such a comment. Not only were Mondrian's conclusive later paintings only about right angles: squares and rectangles, he even set up his studio so that everything was at a right angle, including his easel.