Thursday, February 27, 2014

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy (March 1st and 2nd at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY? screens Saturday March 1st at 7:05 pm and Sunday March 2nd at 5:10 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

There is little doubt that language professor, philosopher, and political activist Noam Chomsky has some interesting ideas. There is also little doubt that filmmaker Michel Gondry makes thought provoking and visually arresting movies. IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY? puts these two men together in a room where Gondry, an unabashed fan of Chomsky, gets to ask the octogenarian intellectual pretty much whatever pops into his head. The resulting flow of ideas is then transformed into animation that illustrates what is being discussed, at least in as much as some of these ideas can be illustrated.

While this approach certainly helps keep the film more visually stimulating that just watching two people sit together and talk for an hour and a half, as Gondry points out in his introduction, it also serves another purpose. In his opinion, when people watch a documentary on a person, they assume that the film speaks for its subject. Gondry disagrees with this notion, believing instead that due to the various choices the filmmaker makes, a documentary is at least as much giving that filmmaker's vision as that of the person the film is ostensibly about. So in order to jar the viewer out thinking that what they are seeing is purely Chomsky's point of view, Gondry has placed his film slightly outside of reality through the use of animation.

As an abstract concept, I get it. As the concrete reality that is IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY?, it doesn't quite work. Sometimes Gondry's cruedly drawn illustrations help bring clarity to the subjects under discussion, but just as often they do not. And while this is certainly a matter of personal aesthetics, I found the art style grating. It also doesn't help that Gondry often has difficulty communicating with Chomsky due to some difficulties on Gondry's part with the English language.

There are still some interesting ideas explored in the film, particularly regarding Chomsky's belief that language is innate rather than learned. It's just that these ideas seem better suited for a book or one of Chomsky's lectures (many of which are available on various formats) than a film. It's obvious Gondry is passionate about bringing Chomsky to a wider and/or different audience, but this just doesn't seem like the best entry point for the uninitiated. Those who already share Gondry's enthusiasm for Chomsky may well enjoy the film more. 2 out of 4 stars.

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