» Animated Linguistics


Directed by Michel Gondry,

France, 2013, 88 minutes

WORDS: Tove Torbiörnsson


How do we know a tree is a tree? What makes the letters d-o-g represent an identifiable physical object in our outer world (or life-world)? What is the origin of language and cognition? In his latest film Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? French director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,The Science of Sleep) takes us on a trip into the universe of linguist/guru Noam Chomsky. The film builds on a series of taped and sometimes filmed interviews the director conducted with the legendary Chomsky. In the film, Gondry tries to fit together the pieces about Chomsky, who is considered by many to be one of the most influential thinkers of our time, and by some to be the founder of modern linguistics.

Gondry, mesmerized by Chomsky whom he first got acquainted with watching some documentaries he picked up in a New York DVD shop, uses entrancing hand-drawn felt pen illustrations in vibrant colours to visually paraphrase the master’s thoughts as he speaks. Most of the time we don’t actually see Chomsky, unless Gondry turns on his noisy Bolex and then fits the cropped interview image into a very small live-action window.

What makes us who we are, in whose footsteps do we tread? I have a childhood memory of being forced by a cruel child minder to eat oatmeal porridge every morning. My brother and I resisted in different ways. But in the end we did eat it. Noam Chomsky’s first childhood memory was that he too, as a one-year child, was forced by an aunt to eat oatmeal porridge – but he refused stubbornly. Why should I eat porridge against my will or why should I be better than everyone else in school? What’s the point? Learning is about getting students to ask questions and to curiously call into question all new information, not to just swallow it without out a thought. Chomsky didn’t eat the porridge. I did. Why? Out of fear?

While Gondry’s art work is captivating his voice is not. Maybe due to a specific and conscious intention which doesn’t resonate with me. But Gondry’s heavy French accent together with Chomsky’s low and unmodulated voice makes it difficult even for the most motivated viewer to keep track. But then funny moments occur when Gondry, for example, struggles over and over again to pronounce the word “endowment”, or when Chomsky gets a bit edgy when he is forced to listen to the amateur linguist’s eager attempt to explain the concept of teleportation. As the film progresses, I start to register moments of annoyance. Is it Gondry’s wide-eyed act of innocence? Is it the film’s braininess? Or is it that my mind does not know how to handle the inherently meditative experience of listening to an endless stream of words spoken by a very intelligent man, while watching hypnotizing doodles morph all over the screen? There are moments when these two create a synergy, but more often I feel a bit old-fashioned when I wish to see the face that speaks.

A film is always subjective and manipulative; the director’s take as described by Gondry, in a context of the intricate choices and non-choices being made, is to work with animation. Interestingly it is often the French who try to get form and philosophical/theoretical content to interact within the universe of film. Gondry continues this tradition. I have great respect for the labour and the effort that has been put in, but all too often the form gets in the way and in the end I really don’t know what Gondry is aiming at. The subjects that are discussed jump from one point to another (“Noam took the conversation to a different place.”) Also noticeable is Gondry’s apolitical stance. When Chomsky decides to leave the linguistic discourse to address human rights and his flabbergast at Europe’s treatment of the Roma people, Gondry quickly suggests moving on and changing the subject.

On the rare occasion that women are mentioned, Chomsky refuses to share his private feelings about the death of his wife of 59 years, Carol Chomsky, the Harvard language professor. Gondry creates a great moment when drawing a man and a woman riding bikes together. We hear the sound of the Bolex, music and Chomsky’s warm memories of his passed away love. Very emotional. Is this a film I would recommend? Yes I would. But watch it at home with the remote control at hand. Take a break whenever you feel like it, rewind and enjoy. __

European premiere at the Berlinale 2014

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