When Michel Gondry set out to film esteemed linguist, philosopher, and MIT professor Noam Chomsky, he faced a not uncommon problem: how to explain complex academic theories in a way that average moviegoers could understand. But Gondry’s answer to this problem was uncommon, and uncommonly ambitious: He decided to animate the whole thing.
The result is “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” which just opened at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, where Chomsky will make an appearance following a screening on Dec. 10.
Gondry’s subject is a hard one to put a unique spin on. Chomsky’s books, theories, and political beliefs have all been examined exhaustively by critics over the course of his 60-year academic career. But Gondry was intrigued by the professor when he first met him in 2005 while Gondry was working as an artist in residence at MIT.
“I think the way he explains the functioning of the world is so sharp, and makes so much sense,” says Gondry during a recent phone interview.
Gondry had tinkered with animation throughout his career and had always wanted to make a feature-length animated film. Shortly after they met, he showed Chomsky an animated clip he made for his film “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” thinking that he could use a similar abstract style to illustrate Chomsky’s ideas. Chomsky went for it, even though he wasn’t familiar with Gondry’s work.
“I have to admit, I didn’t know who he was,” says Chomsky, 84, of the 50-year-old filmmaker who directed “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” “He initiated it and wanted to have a couple of conversations and I agreed and I was pretty impressed with his character, his questioning and his inquiry.”
At first glance Gondry’s whimsical filmmaking style — honed in movies such as “The Science of Sleep” and “Be Kind Rewind,” as well as a career’s worth of music videos and TV ads — might seem at odds with Chomsky’s academic gravitas. But while Gondry’s drawings have a cartoonish quality to them, they also afford him the freedom to explore Chomsky’s theories without being bound by the limitations of live-action filmmaking. “What I found is that the complexity of animation . . . it doesn’t match, of course, but it’s similar to Noam’s discourse,” says Gondry.
This complexity allowed Gondry to let his creativity run wild. He combines Chomsky’s discussion of the misconceptions he sees in modern philosophy with intricate geometric patterns that change shape as Chomsky speaks. An offhand statement by Chomsky about the experiments on children’s language acquisition is coupled with an illustration of a baby with a video camera for a head, being examined by a bizarre contraption with a microphone.
“[The film] is done with a wonderful sense of delicacy and subtlety,” says Chomsky. “But he also managed to do something which is not easy, to get across some fairly complicated ideas which are sometimes not even understood in the profession, and he did it with a light touch and in a way that I think is accessible to the public.”
The downside is that the process was painfully slow to complete. All of the animation was done by hand (Timothée Lemoine and Valérie Pirson are also credited), and the frames were shot with an old Bolex mechanical camera. The project took four years to complete, and Gondry often carried a small animation kit, including a portable light box, so he could work on the film when he was on the road.
Gondry also wanted the chance to examine a man whose public persona is often at odds with a fiercely guarded private life.
“If I wanted to help his theories come across, then I had to show his personality,” Gondry notes in his thick French accent. He managed to get Chomsky to open up about his childhood in Philadelphia, and the early stages of his life with his wife, Carol, a Harvard linguist who died in 2008. But Chomsky always guides Gondry’s focus back to his research. “There is no particular reason why my personal life should be of interest to anyone. It was a fairly conventional life,” says Chomsky. “What he was focusing on was the intellectual content. And he quite rightly brought up the personal aspects just to bring richness to it.”
Gondry might disagree with Chomsky’s assessment, but he can take solace in the fact that Chomsky approved of his honesty. “I liked the way he expressed his entirely legitimate puzzlement over things that really seem puzzling, and how he pursued them, over and over, instead of taking the easy way out and evading,” Chomsky says. “I found that very impressive.”