I went last night to see the new Michel Gondry documentary, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky,” and I admit, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
Based on the title, I assumed that Gondry was going to explain – and illustrate – some of the seminal work that Chomsky did in linguistics, and, presumably, connect that work both with Chomsky’s political ideas (would you really do a movie about Chomsky and not touch on politics?) and with the process of filmmaking. And at the very start, the film gestures in that direction; Gondry announces that he decided to animate the film precisely so that it will be plain to the viewer that this is an artifact of the director, and not a transparent record of the words of the subject.
This ought to be the beginning, not the end, of a discussion, but the subject is dropped. Gondry never asks Chomsky about how film teaches us to see, or about the relationship between the language of film and the innate grammatical structures that Chomsky made his life’s work to study. The closest we come is repeated discussion of the concept of “narrative continuity” – the way in which we perceive external world as composed of entities with an associated history as opposed to as objects with concrete properties. So, even small children understand that when Sylvester becomes a rock, he’s still Sylvester the donkey, while a cutting that is planted and grows to become a tree is a different organism from the tree from which it was cut, even though the two organisms are genetically identical and hence both have equal logical claim to continuity with the “original” tree.
Gondry seems to think that by showing us how his film is made, he has somehow exposed this mental process and thereby avoided manipulating us. For example, late in the film, when we finally get to the famous sentence that gives the film its title, he says that he wanted to talk about that sentence because “I could do a really good animation” – in other words, that it was driven not by the requirements of the argument he wanted to make but by the potentialities he saw in the medium to entertain the audience. (He draws a charming picture of a giant crouching inside a too-small house. So no, I don’t think the tall man is happy.) But I don’t see how this alleviates the problem that Gondry identifies, that our minds close up gaps in continuity in order to make sense of a narrative.
What it does instead is expose that Gondry hasn’t processed Chomsky’s core insights sufficiently well to communicate them to an audience. He and Chomsky have a long back-and-forth at one point where they plainly are not understanding one another. Gondry wants to make some kind of point about how children see cartoons of dogs before they see actual dogs, and yet they understand what dogs are; Chomsky is trying to make some kind of point about how the intuition that we have a mental picture of dogs based on common attributes is simply wrong. But we never learn what either man thinks of the other’s point, nor why either point is important – instead, we’re just given the record of mutual-incomprehension.
Which I found terribly frustrating. Chomsky’s big point about the sentence in the title, if I understand it, is that very young children are able to understand how to transform a statement – “the man who is tall is happy” – into a question – “is the man who is tall happy?” – which, it would seem, requires them to have internalized a generative grammar that should be too complex for them to understand. (How do they know that the second “is” is the one to move, that it is structurally closer to the beginning of the sentence even though it is linearly further?)
But the “wrongly” structured version of the question – “is the man who tall is happy?” – is actually comprehensible, provided you read it with the correct stress (with emphasis on the word “tall”). If you read it correctly, you see that both instances of “is” have been moved – the “is” that used to be before “happy” has been moved to the front, while the “is” that used to be before “tall” is moved to where the first “is” used to be. We understand that “who would fardles bear” means the same thing as “who would bear fardles;” Shakespeare’s construction has a poetic, elevated tone because the verb is placed Germanically at the end of the sentence. And I’ve heard any number of small children make these kinds of grammatical “mistakes” – that is to say, construct sentences that show a clear understanding of what the different words in the sentence are doing grammatically while not yet getting the conventions of “proper” ordering thereof.
I suspect Chomsky would say something like “exactly” – but I really wanted to get into it with him and make sure I understood what he was getting at, what was the significance of his insight. And the movie just never got me there, preferring to let Chomsky reiterate his self-flattering belief that his own insights were like Galileo’s, the first steps away from linguistics as mere taxonomy and towards being an actual science.
Ultimately, the film is more a record of Gondry’s fascination with Chomsky than it is a particularly clear explication of his ideas. The fascination is understandable – Chomsky has an incredibly powerful mind, which he has kept focused for an entire lifetime on the subjects that interest him, primarily the origins of thought, which he sees as inseparable from the origins of language. Even his political ideas can be understood as an effort to force people to think, and to fight the manifold efforts by government, corporations and the organs of the media to convince us to let them do our thinking for us, and thereby reduce us to something less than human. For that reason, I would think Chomsky would prefer the company of minds worth pressing against, prefer questions that he has to work to answer. So I’m disappointed to discover that Chomsky admired this admiring but intellectually unchallenging film.