Michel Gondry’s Chomsky Quandary

As a child, French director Michel Gondry wanted to be something “between an artist and an inventor.” You could argue that he’s succeeded; with his best work—be it feature films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, (2004) or music videos for Daft Punk—Gondry pushes up against the limits of the imagination like a mad scientist. “I was very impressed by people who were landmarked by their talents, whether it was Duke Ellington or Pelé or Janis Joplin or Picasso,” he explains. “Of course, I didn’t see myself going to this level,” he continues. “But I was very intrigued by their creativity that fuels them like a nuclear power plant.”

Gondry’s latest film, the animated Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, focuses on one of these landmarked minds: the extremely erudite linguist and activist Noam Chomsky. In a series of conversations, the director asks the 84-year-old MIT professor everything from what elementary school he attended to how children acquire language and how he felt when his wife passed away. Chomsky answers the questions with a curt certainty, relating them back to Plato, Newton, Galileo, Hulme, or dismissing them as “common-sensical” or “trivial.” Gondry illustrates each point with hand-drawn, Tetris-like animation. When Chomsky repeats a point he’s already made, Gondry recycles one of his drawings.

EMMA BROWN: When did you first become aware of Noam?

MICHEL GONDRY: Not so long ago. People don’t talk so much about him in France, so it was probably 2005 or 2006.

BROWN: Did you meet him at MIT?

GONDRY: Yeah, but not the first time I went there. I was invited as an artist in residence for two weeks. I was aware of him, but I didn’t know he was there for some reason. Everybody knew, but I was ignorant. When I found out he was there, I was really into him and his work so I asked if I could meet with him. I met him for 20 minutes. It went well, so the next time I went to MIT I met him again.

BROWN: What specifically about him interested you?

GONDRY: First, I was really convinced by his political views—his take on the environment in general. Then I looked into his scientific work and the fact that he came up with theories in the ’50s and they sort of changed linguistics, was very impressive to me. Even though I was not necessarily into linguistics, the way he talks about it, writes about it, is a scientific way. That’s what interests me—the biological aspect of language. There are not so many scientists who have such detailed and strong and personal view on politics. Most scientists, even if they are great people of their time, when they speak about the world or the world affairs, they become very generic. He’s one of the few that has this equivalence and the depth and complexity [to] his views both politically and scientifically.

BROWN: Noam expresses his opinions with such conviction that it’s hard not to believe him. Did you ever find yourself disagreeing with him?

GONDRY: It’s true—it is hard because he talks about his subject. There are times where I was trying to express my point of view, of say the moon illusion, but he cut me short. He says it was not the point to give an explanation and even commented that my explanation was trivial. But I still believe my explanation is not trivial. It’s a geometrical observation that is valuable and maybe he doesn’t want to hear my explanation because it doesn’t make his point. Maybe I could argue here. But most of the time, his views are really supported by his science and his observations, so they are hard to contradict. And then in politics, most of the time I really find what he says very aligned with my perception.

BROWN: I know you were making this film while you were editing The Green Hornet as well.

GONDRY: I started it during this time.

BROWN: Do you think it influenced The Green Hornet at all?

GONDRY: No. [laughs] Not much influenced The Green Hornet, or could have. Even my point of view was not really followed. What it did was The Green Hornet influenced this movie in terms of its freedom. I was really constrained in The Green Hornet, and it was because I had chosen to do a very broad movie. I have a great interest in appealing to a broad audience—I’m interested in these type of people, not the elite. But it was complicated to manage, and when I would come back after a day of editing, I would be very happy to draw freely Noam’s voice.

BROWN: But this is quite a niche film.

GONDRY: It’s probably true, but I think it could be a little more broad than the usual audience for Noam. I do what I feel is right. Of course I want to have recognition, broad recognition, but when I say this audience appeals to me… for instance, when I did Be Kind Rewind (2008), the movies they were reproducing were blockbusters. This type of audience—people who are not trendy or not doing artistic jobs—I am interested in them but they like the very commercial movies. I was into doing one movie like that, that would be very appealing.

BROWN: What were you hoping to get from Noam when you started filming your conversations?

GONDRY: I was hoping to show his humanity and [get] something personal out of him. Everything he says is very unique, but he doesn’t expand on his personal life. It’s not that I wanted to be like a tabloid, but I thought it would be interesting to see how this all started from his mind—how he was as a kid, his friendships, his personal relationships with people. How such a mind gets started in a tiny body. That’s where talking to somebody who invented his own field, in a way, was very much what I was interested—the idea that you can talk to somebody who has already a legacy and is still alive, it’s not so common. Most people when they reach this recognition, it’s after they’re alive.

BROWN: The relationship between Noam and his wife was something I found really moving. Did you know about that going in?

GONDRY: Well, I already knew him when she passed away and so I felt his loss. I knew they had spent all their life together and been through a lot of combat side by side, and that they studied a similar field. It was sort of an ideal relationship in my view. When I mentioned that, he said, “Oh it’s not perfect, maybe from the outside.” He was pretty objective about it and honest but nevertheless, they got married when they were 19 [and stayed married] until she passed away a few years ago. It’s amazing. When I went to the psychological aspect of it, he didn’t really want to go there. I asked him if it was helpful for his work to have a very stable relationship and he didn’t want really to expand on that. It very much defines how he sees things. He doesn’t want to go to anything psychological because there he sees shortcuts—it’s the border of science that he’s not really interested in.

BROWN: But it came through when he talked about her and mentioned the work that she’d done. It is clear that he is proud of his wife and respected her. 

GONDRY: Oh, yeah. He’s not guarded about that. Where his resistant is to try to attach a psychological explanation to this. Every time I try to go this way he wants to be more matter of fact. But yes, I noticed he was talking about his wife as much as he could. I made this parallel with Columbo, you know this TV series, which was very famous in France and how Columbo always speaks about his wife, you never see her but always talk about his wife, and I thought he was like that. He didn’t miss one chance to talk about her and that was very touching.

BROWN: I wanted to ask you a couple of the questions that you asked Noam. Do you think competition impedes creativity?

GONDRY: Yeah, because you present yourself in a way that’s going to been seen by somebody outside of you. You’re not very much yourself and it limits you. People always say there is competition in nature, but I think that because we are human, it’s not only competition. Because we are human we have something other than competition—sharing, helping others, or being oneself. Competition is really kind of ugly.

BROWN: What makes you happy?

GONDRY: Oh, it depends. If I have a good dream and I wake up happy. When I have an idea, I feel happy. Sometimes achievement and relationships can make me happy. I have a son and to see him grow—he’s 22 now—that makes me happy.