By definition, the job an artist is to communicate ideas to its audience in ways that will stimulate. While the communication part is often done in the most literal sense, director Michel Gondry has made a career out of pushing the boundaries to what can be perceived as art. Films such as surreal daydream The Science of Sleep reflect his abilities to mix realism with abstract visual tricks that question how to see the world. More than a lot of directors working today, he defines what an artist could be. When approaching his latest project, a 90 minute interview with Noam Chomsky called Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, he couldn’t simply present the footage. He had to animate it.
There is no real plot to the documentary and is more an excuse for the two to sit down and discuss philosophy. Where Gondry is more of a free-thinker, Chomsky is concise and presents his ideas thoroughly. Gondry’s fascination comes through as an endearing factor in the overall conversation, as he seems to be there more to prod than provoke. During the conversation, we get a sense of Chomsky’s origins for his beliefs and how he perceives the world with help of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. There is no limit to talking points and almost flows as a stream of consciousness. It only rarely breaks off into Gondry’s personal life as he applies Chomsky’s teaching to his life, whether it be editing The Green Hornet or compiling questions for the next section of the interview.
The interview itself isn’t that fascinating to anyone who dislikes extended philosophical debates. However, the appeal and genius of the documentary comes in the presentation. With very limited exposure to actual footage, the majority of the interview is animated. Mixing real life photography with neon-colored squiggles and other various artistic styles, Gondry has done something exceptional here. He has managed to present abstract ideas as clear and vivid visuals that enhance the ideas. With a lot of focus on how information is processed in the brain, he manages to make the neurological process turn into a visual delight as relative images spawn almost like a connection. It is the creative process realized in the most succinct way ever imagined.
The only issue beyond that is endurance. While the concept is executed perfectly, it does wear thin over the course of 90 minutes. Watching images flow almost as quickly as each syllable, it becomes dizzying and the hypnotic approach loses the appeal the further into the conversation things go. As a whole, this novelty concept works in short spurts and depending on your fascination with the conversation of philosophy, it could be an endearing experiment. Even if the conversation does get tedious at points, there are brilliant ideas presented with equally engaging imagery that makes it compelling.
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a triumph of artistic statement. While it works better as an experiment than enjoyment, it continues to show Gondry’s abilities to provoke ideas in new and interesting ways. At its worse, it is just surreal animation. At its best, it provokes ideas about life and existence in ways no animated film has done since Waking Life. It probably won’t have the durability of Gondry’s other work, but it continues to make him a fascinating presence in the film world. He is by true definition an artist and this is his brain processing ideas. It is an engaging documentary unlike any other kind and reflects where even something as mundane as a conversation can go. Despite being somewhat meandering, it does give off a sense of optimism for the future of film.