EIFF 2014: Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? review
Like Michel Gondry? Or Noam Chomsky? If you like both, this'll be a real treat...
The first thing to consider here is if you're a fan of Michel Gondry (the writer/director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Noam Chomsky (linguist/activist/Gangnam Style parodist). If you don't like either of them, it's probably best to give Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? a miss. If you like one but aren't aware of the other, then this is a good starting point for their work, giving you an idea of both men and their interests.
The film is simply this: Gondry, who we all hope will one day finish his adaptation of Philip K Dick's Ubik, holds several interviews with Chomsky, films parts of them, and provides animation for the rest. The animations are akin to a stream of consciousness, colourful and dreamlike protuberances and stretching body parts accompanying the recorded conversation. It's a bit like Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations but achieved using a box of felt tips, or the Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy as rendered by children. As Gondry mentions at the start, the abstract unreality of it is also a way for the audience to feel more free to interpret events their own way – filmed documentaries normally capturing the voice of the director and editor more than that of their subjects.
Chomsky is, ostensibly, the subject, but Gondry's personality and knowledge is also involved due to his occasional interjections. In these he explains his line of questioning, some of the confusion arising from speaking in English, and also some wry meta commentary on his working methods, and how stupid it was to commit to animating the conversations in such a time consuming and laborious way. The idea that he was filming Green Hornet during the process seems to come from another world entirely.
Noam Chomsky, meanwhile, is loosely documented in these interviews, with his life story established in a non-linear manner, homing in on certain details via questioning than a general overview of everything. Discussions of the personal are perhaps more affecting for the omissions, and Chomsky's views on religion and history are accessible for the novice. Basically, it mixes compassion and blunt honesty, showing a great deal more understanding of people than a mere aggressively stated atheism.
His sections on Linguistics and Philosophy are also well conveyed, albeit on less well-known matters. Theories of language are not something that feel as intuitively important as religion and racism, though they underpin both of those. As of yet, though, rival Philosophy of Language professors are yet to commit atrocities because they disagree with each other's equations. While that statement might seem glib, or possibly opaque, it demonstrates that this is a thought provoking peace despite it just being two people sitting down to have a quiet conversation, driven by Gondry's intrigue about cognitive sciences.
Where the piece falls down is in the ambience and free flowing qualities. A boon in some respects, the dreamlike nature of the film can also lull and calm the viewer. There were a great many blinking, tired eyes when the lights went up in the screening, and some puzzled conversation afterwards. Paying attention was problematic given how exceedingly relaxing the movie was. Thus, communicating the ideas is occasionally problematic, simply because it's as tangible as a dream to you afterwards.
It's not going to be a movie with mainstream appeal (likely to evoke responses of 'Who?' 'What?' and 'Why?'), but for those intrigued by either personality, it leaves a series of impressions in many forms, be they of images, concepts, or individuals. An intoxicating combination of style and substance.
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