Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky

In this fascinating animated documentary, Michel Gondry, the innovative director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep (as well as many award-winning commercials and music videos), interviews the controversial MIT professor, philosopher, linguist, anti-war activist and political firebrand Noam Chomsky. Gondry’s brilliant animations of his complex, lively conversations with Chomsky provide an accessible and dazzling profile of the man who is considered the father of modern linguistics as well as one of the most foremost thinkers of our time. I sat down with Michel Gondry in Los Angeles.

Danny Miller: This is such an unusual documentary. What was the courting process with Noam Chomsky like and was he always on board with the idea of animating his words?

michelgondryMichel Gondry: Yes he was. I had met him several times when I was an artist-in-residence at MIT and was a big fan of his. I told him I wanted to interview him and illustrate everything he said in sort of an abstract way and he thought that was a really interesting idea.

For some reason I imagine that someone like Noam Chomsky might be a little prickly and difficult to get access to. Was that your experience?

No, not at all! I found him to be very agreeable and very approachable. He does tons of interviews and I think he was intrigued by my plans. But he’s also the kind of guy that will give more attention to a third grader interviewing him for a school newspaper than some famous journalist so I really like that about him as well.

I love the old-school style of your animation. I assume you did every single drawing by hand?

Yes, absolutely, and we shot with the camera that you see in the film — a mechanical 16mm Bolex.

I love the sound that the Bolex makes, I haven’t heard that in years!

(Laughs.) Yeah, it’s pretty loud sometimes!

chomsky-posterSome of the concepts you were illustrating were very complex. Did you first do a complete audio cut and then start animating?

No, I started with certain parts that I was attracted to visually like when he started talking about the tree. That was fun for me to animate so I worked on that while I was still editing the interviews. I admit that I did the whole film a little upside-down — it was sort of an organic process that took me about three years but it was very fun to do.

I know that if I was listening to Noam Chomsky say all this in a lecture, most of it would go over my head. Having it accompanied with your amazing animation made it so much more understandable. Can you please follow me around for the rest of my life and animate everything I hear?

(Laughs.) Sure, but you’ll have to wait quite a long time for me catch up with every comment! What I loved about doing this is that I was able to play with abstractions. There were plenty of things I didn’t really get when he was talking but when I drew them it made me understand them so much better. Because of his role as an inventor and innovator, a lot of his ideas are counterintuitive — they would not be discoveries otherwise. That makes things more complex because he’s constantly twisting your sense of things, but it’s one of the things I like about him the most.

You obviously came to the interviews with questions that pitched the conversation a certain way, but if he had gone off on some political tangent, would you have used that?

Well, I wanted to let him talk freely but I was more interested in his scientific approach and the human aspect of his personality because that’s a side of him we have less access to. I really wanted to show some of his theories in a way that people could understand, especially in my country where he’s been completely dismissed for various reasons. I was hoping to open doors for people to discover that he has some really important things to say.

When you’re sitting with someone like Noam Chomsky, do you ever find yourself thinking, “Holy crap, I feel so dumb!”

Yes, completely! But that’s why it was so cool to translate his words into my area of expertise which is animation. It helped me to feel like I was contributing to the conversation.

He’s very confident in what he’s saying but he never seems arrogant in the sense of “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even in the area of religion which he takes such issue with.

I think he’s very aware that many people he respects attach a deep meaning to religion and things like the afterlife, so he has no interest in mocking them even if he doesn’t share those beliefs.

His marriage (Chomsky’s wife, Carol, died in 2008) was so unusually close it’s almost hard not to put a spiritual tinge on it.

Or at least a moral one. He’s a very, very moral person, in my opinion. His main argument for everything is a simple, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” He can’t stand hypocrisy which I think drives all of his opinions on politics.

I know he’s been a very outspoken critic of the U.S. government. Has he also criticized France a lot? Is that why you say he’s dismissed there? 

Yes. In France you have to choose your camp. That makes some topics very difficult to tackle, because if you dare to question one thing you’re immediately put on the other side — the evil side! There are several French philosophers that he dismisses completely which makes French people go crazy. A lot of journalists in France are big fans of Sartre, for example, so they find Chomsky very irritating. And his positions on freedom of expression are much stronger than what we have in France.

I remember his defense of Holocaust deniers being allowed to print what they believed didn’t win him any friends in Europe.

Yes, that was his thing — it’s not that defending the freedom of expression of a group of people means that you agree with what they are saying, which he certainly didn’t. Or to put it the other way, you don’t just defend the rights of people you agree with! But that’s not a concept that’s familiar in France.

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is currently in limited release and available on VOD and Digital.