Imperfection will always be more interesting than perfection. We will always be drawn towards a work, be it a film, a novel, or a piece of music, for the ways in which it swerves, for the decisions the creator of the work has made which make it distinct from others of its type, or elevate it. And yet our culture does not necessarily move this way—in fact, accuracy, perfection, flawlessness, whatever you would like to call it, receive tremendous cultural validation. This sort of striving is desirable in the sciences, but disturbing when it edges over into the arts. The most recent trend in animated films, for instance, has been to make them smoother, to make their figures more polished in appearance and strangely realistic, even as their actual proportions are distorted; we don’t see the shaky hand of the animator in these works at all, because many times the animator’s physical hand has been replaced by a mouse or a computer key, or maybe a stylus, dragged across a specially constructed pad. And the result of this? Gradually, the public memory of, and appreciation for, older, more personal ways of creating films is being erased, to be replaced by images which give the illusion of being more “advanced” because they have been created with more advanced technology. Why watch Fantasia when you could watch Toy Story? Why watch the early Warner Bros. cartoons when you could watch Monsters University? Michel Gondry’s latest, Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, is an animated film on a linguist and political philosopher, seemingly an invitation to disaster. However, the film is anything but. Gondry tells two stories at once, here: one is a plain-spoken, relaxedly paced conversation with Noam Chomsky about his life and thought; the other is the story of a filmmaker’s attempt to understand Chomsky’s words, expressed through highly personalized and gloriously imperfect drawings. Technology was obviously quite important to the making of this film–nevertheless, in telling both of these stories, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a strong reminder of the power of the human touch, for lack of a better phrase, in artistic works.
The first story the film tells is one which many Chomsky fans may be familiar with already. Gondry asks Chomsky a number of questions, both personal and impersonal, and Chomsky gives dry but straightforward responses. Chomsky has a congenial, warm, and fairly comforting tone, even as he issues intellectual challenges. We learn about Chomsky’s father, and his love of classic Hebrew tales; we also learn about Chomsky’s school days, and how he hated sports, asking why anyone would want to be better than anyone else (there’s a foreign policy statement in a nutshell); we also learn that Chomsky is uncomfortable speaking about his late wife, the only moment in a continuous stream of monologic explanation in which the interviewee is simply silent. The explanation present here addresses Chomsky’s ideas about language: why and how words might have certain meanings for us, and where we get our ideas about what those words mean. Gondry does his best to parry productively, in a verbal way, with Chomsky, but often comes up short, even by his own admission. Chomsky’s solution to the problem–how does one have a meaningful conversation across a vast language and (possibly) intelligence gap?–is profound. He draws. And the drawings move, and they also speak, albeit silently.
But saying they move is an oversimplification. They cavort; they shimmer; they dominate, at times, with poor Chomsky reduced nearly to the size of a talking footnote. And what does Gondry draw? All sorts of things. At time the designs take the shape of rows of parallel lines extending outwards, up, down, over, back; at time Gondry draws huge machines that push their robotic arms across the screen; at times Gondry draws simple, childlike figures, meant to represent him or Chomsky. Of course, calling them childlike isn’t so accurate: drawing is, in this particular instance, an immediate form of communication, however long (several years) it took Gondry to make the film. Gondry is trying to translate the concepts he is facing in visual terms–and this makes the second, more interesting and complicated story in the film. In constructing the film in this way, Gondry makes himself vulnerable–very few of us, who aren’t professionally trained, can draw flawless representations of anything. This imperfection is, in fact, a sign of humanity. Despite their roughness, though, the illustrations in the film communicate, with their energy, and perhaps with some other indescribable element, akin to those notes that only dogs can hear, that Gondry does grasp Chomsky’s concepts (even if he denies it). And, knowing that, we feel that we can grasp them as well.
But, all this aside, why are the drawings important? So Gondry made an animated film about a subject most people would think to be unanimateable–so what? Well, the significance is this: the problem with films such as Toy Story 1, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Up, Monsters University, Brave, or Ratatouille is that, entertaining and complex as these films might be, and as impressively droll and clever as their storylines might be, and as purely dynamic as they might be, and as impressively realistic as they might be, hovering somewhere between animation and photography, they’re not real in the right sense, in that they don’t tell you anything about the person who made them. They don’t tell you if their creators could actually make a real drawing, in pencil, on paper; they don’t tell you how the creators feel about their subject, as this film so often does; while they might have grand themes, as in Brave, or Up, you’re never entirely sure who it is who’s communicating it, as an absence of style becomes an absence of, well, presence behind the camera. Is there a camera, even? It’s okay to take for granted that our telephones will become smarter and smarter; it’s okay to take for granted that travel will become more and more comfortable, or that even that all cars will someday drive themselves. But is it okay for filmmakers to take for granted that all their viewers want is more accuracy on screen, more “polish,” leaving out the possibility that the reflection of “reality” viewers want might be one more clearly filtered through a human being’s perspective?
Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.