Michel Gondry is, to me, in the same class as Spike Lee or David Fincher. I'll watch whatever they make no matter what. They've earned that right. This is not to say they're consistently good, but they’re consistently interesting.
My expectations for Gondry are never that high. The premise of his films tends to be cerebral but the execution is crudely done. Almost sloppy, since it can distract from the movie.
Maybe there's a dream sequence where someone has a giant head, but the head is made with paper mâché and looks like something done for a school play. You can't get invested in whatever scene its in because it looks ridiculous.
Whether or not the movie was good depends on if there was enough emotional content to make the crudeness forgivable. For example, Eternal Sunshine... was manic but held together by a sweet love story. The Science of Sleep felt more personal than Eternal... but maybe because of that it felt incoherent. And in Be Kind Rewind, crudeness is essential to the movie, since Jack Black and Mos Def are showing their love of film by making crappy remakes.
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is an interview between Michel Gondry and Noam Chomsky. At the film's start, Gondry explains that the physical process of producing, filming, and editing a documentary results in the film being more about the filmmaker than the subject. In other words, previous films about Chomsky were really about the filmmakers and Chomsky acts as a sort of vessel. Gondry wants to remedy this by putting Chomsky in front of a shitty camera and letting him talk. The shittiness of the camera is important, because the noise it makes requires Gondry to animate the film for viewers to understand. And it's not pretty. What was the word I used? It is crudely executed, but seems no small feat.
The film is not about one thing, other than a conversation with an intellectual that's allowed to meander. Harleen found the art to distract from an otherwise interesting conversation. I disgree but I see where she’s coming from. It can be epileptic. I know nothing about linguistics but I do know that any deep study is going to be difficult to explain. Feynman once said that anything you can’t explain to your grandmother, you don’t understand. This is as close an attempt to explain generative grammar to a grandmother as I’ve seen. Most of the documentary is about the innate structure of language and its relationship to “psychic continuity”. That is, that all objects carry something more than the sum of their parts.
A simple example: A donkey turns into a rock. It knows it's supposed to be a donkey and tries to convince its parents it is their son, the donkey. Is it a donkey or a rock?
Another one: Take a tree. Remove and bury a branch from it. Say that it grows into another tree, genetically indistinguishable from the first. Now say a logger comes by and chops the first tree down. Did you lose the first tree at all?
Last one: A wooden ship is launched with a bunch of lumber. Over the course of its trip, it loses a plank here, a beam there. Those pieces of the ship fall into the ocean and float off. Whenever a piece broke off, a craftsman on the ship would take some of their cargo lumber and rebuild it. Suppose the craftsman does this to every piece of wood on the ship. Is it the same ship? Now suppose the pieces that fell off floated to an island, where another craftsman takes them and builds the exact same kind of boat. It's the same ship design with the same wood of the original ship, does that mean it has become the original ship?
To any young child, these questions have answers: The rock is still a donkey, the first tree is lost, and the original ship still remains at sea.
In other words, they recognize that there is a concept of psychic continuity that original objects exhibit. That continuity is not lost when the donkey becomes the rock. It is lost when the original tree is cut down. And it remains when the boat reaches its port.
Chomsky suggests that this understanding comes from our genes and is intrinsic to our understanding of language (and our massive success as a species). Ironically, that same “psychic continuity” is why Gondry made this documentary, because it makes us think a documentary on a person is representative of that person, and not the creator.
Like I said earlier, Gondry’s films need emotional subtext to not come across as a complete disaster. There’s an attempt by Gondry to ask Chomsky about his late wife, who does not want to speak about it. It’s not long in the movie, and with some strategically placed music, seems a bit manipulative. But this is Chomsky’s show, and they return to philosophy.
That’s an interesting idea: Who’s documentary is it anyway? There is tension between the creator and the subject, something Gondry alluded to earlier. There are moments where Chomsky dismisses a point Gondry tries to make (because Gondry isn’t able to make it clearly). Gondry would return the next day and try again. He would interject the interview with his thoughts on how difficult the animating process is. But ultimately, Chomsky has the upper hand and decides that the documentary will be about (and what Gondry will have to animate).
In between the heady subjects, Gondry had light-hearted moments detailing the tension between animating the movie by hand and wanted to finish something he started. His stated goal: ”to convert a long process to a (hopefully) coherent result. [A project] to focus [his] often shattered creativity."
You know what? That's real. And I no longer recognize my position to critique this film. It looks pain-staking to put together. So here's my final review of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?:
- It is a documentary
- It is an interview
- It is a cartoon
- I couldn't stop watching it