Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

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.

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Zero Dark Thirty

“The fox has many tricks,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously said. “The hedgehog has but one. But that is the best of all.” That might be the epitaph for Maya, the C.I.A. agent responsible for taking down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. It might also have been the film’s epigraph–the line that got Kathryn Bigelow out of bed every morning. But the last sentence of the maxim isn’t always true. At least it isn’t for this hedgehog of a movie.

Zero Dark Thirty is proficiently made, but what’s its point? Unlike a lot of movies, this doesn’t seem to satisfy an artist’s inner itch; it just happens to be something that Bigelow, after taking home her historic Oscar for The Hurt Locker, seemed able to scratch. She identifies herself more as a journalist than an artist. When Stephen Colbert grilled her about her inclusion of “enhanced interrogative techniques,” the director answered by saying that Zero is “the first draft of history.” Well, actually, it’s the second–maybe the third? (When it comes to layers of historical truth, there are few numbers short of infinity on that onion called the Internet.) What would be the point of that anyway? This isn’t the kind of movie that’s raw from recent experience; it’s measured, factitious, bureaucratic. Movies are often slow to respond to trends; trends get exposed as such before they reach theaters. But an event like bin Laden’s death is a different story. The macabre jubilee with which many Americans greeted it was a real first draft–an ambiguous one. It’s only been a year and a half; I can think of few subjects more in need of distance to reflect on. Absent that you get this: straight-laced and shielded by facts–too rushed to transcend them.

There are obvious retorts. One could say this is a refresher for people who, like me, might have difficulty retaining a decade’s worth of international news. Maybe it fulfills some primordial yearning to see those facts illustrated in a first-hand account that only cinema can provide. Zero gives credit to the behind-the-scenes guys who knew not to expect the public’s admiration when they signed up; they leave that to SEAL Team Six and other heroes whose praises did not go unsung. But what have we learned about the C.I.A. personnel, represented here by their noms de guerre, except the obvious: that they worked hard? (One might say that we learned about how successful their torture techniques were, but let’s not jump the gun on that.) The only hint that Maya might be as cloudy as Carrie Mathison comes when her superior says that he doesn’t want to kill bin Laden; he wants to stop the next attack on the home land. The analyst responds with a chicken-and-egg answer, not an indication that she’s cracked. Maya complains about the bigwigs’ need for certainties; and on this issue, with our hindsight, we have to agree with her.

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