Noam Chomsky is five feet 11 inches tall. A question he once posed abstractly, in a treatise on linguistics, gets turned on him by Michel Gondry, who’s appropriated it for his new documentary’s title: Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? The equable public intellectual can field questions about world history and epistemology without batting a brain cell; but whether or not he’s happy leaves him dumbfounded. He has to think about how he feels.
By contrast, Gondry feels out what Chomsky thinks. Rather than turn his subject into a talking head sticking out of a frumpy sweater–a service that the professor has provided to many interviewers over the years–the director uses his subject as a subject. Without delving too deeply into political theory–though it’s implicit in everything that Chomsky says–the film constructs a cheat-sheet intellectual biography. (Chomsky, elusively, uses his ideas as a context for his biography rather than the other way around.) Instead of plugging the holes with photographs or the testimony of others, however, Gondry illustrates most of what the professor says with hand-drawn animation; the results are like the doodles of a restless but attentive student at a lecture, and this rescues Chomsky from the literal plane that he’s resigned himself to. Unlike such telegenic peers as Cornel West or Christopher Hitchens or Camille Paglia or Slavoj Žižek, this doyen’s brilliance isn’t captivating in itself; it’s fastidiously unperturbed by rhetoric or cultural references or even personality. And yet his lack of flair translates to limpidity, integrity.
Gondry, on the other hand, has a body of work marked more by personality than by coherence. I was rough on his sweet-but-janky Be Kind Rewind (2008) because that was a case of someone who makes his own rules playing by those of Hollywood and utterly flopping. Man, fortunately, is unabashedly distinctive. This filmmaker is acutely aware of his limitations–his English is poor, and few could hold a candle to Chomsky’s intellect without getting snuffed–but he’s incorporated his embarrassment into the voiceover. He uses it dynamically, in a self-consciously passive-aggressive way, backtracking and clarifying his circumlocutions. Several of his drawings branch out like neon subway guides or Lite-Brite nerve endings; his film is about translation, and the limitations of translation, so his illustrations map out Chomsky’s influence on Gondry’s imagination rather than Chomsky’s objective ideas.