Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? could be a perfect title. It refers to a problem from linguistics that the not-particularly-tall Noam Chomsky tackled early in his career, presented to him in this documentary by his interlocutor, Michel Gondry, as “Is the man who is tall in the room?” Chomsky changes the wording, a blatant Freudian slip: not long before, Gondry has asked the linguistics professor and political firebrand about the death of his wife, and though Chomsky won’t say much, he does mention that he’s very sad and has stopped doing social things like going to films or eating in restaurants. The sentence gets at something about the man and his intellectual output. Too bad the whole film doesn’t.
To understand why Gondry’s “animated conversation” feels so unsatisfying, you don’t need to look beyond the building where it’s playing—where several other documentaries are as well. Presently, the IFC Center is also showing The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, a follow-up to The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, both films featuring intellectual rockstar Slavoj Žižek. As our reviewer Dan Sullivan wrote:
Žižek explicates his Lacanian-Marxist perspectives on a host of topics pertaining to ideology (here understood in its Marxist formulation as what people don’t know they’re doing but are nevertheless doing) by commenting on clips from films while also appearing as a figure in various tableaux styled to replicate sets from the films being discussed. As with the Cinema guide, Ideology aggregates many of Žižek’s favored examples of pop-cultural phenomena that evidence his critique of capitalism… in an effort to somehow make it more accessible to the non-grad-student public than his hilarious lectures already do.
In other words, it lays out Žižek’s central philosophy—documentary as sustained intellectual argument. In contrast, The Punk Singer tells the story of Kathleen Hanna, rockstar and feminist. As she told Lauren Beck in Brooklyn Magazine about deciding to help in the making of the movie:
I was very ill, and so I was like, “You know what? If someone’s going to do this, it should be [this director], and it should be now.” There are so many things in your life where you think, “This is the worst fucking time that I could do this. I’m sick. This is the worst decision.” But the worst decisions sometimes turn out to be the best decisions. When am I ever going to get this opportunity again?
Gondry could ask himself the same thing. Chomsky is an old man, only getting older; we probably won’t have him too much longer to explain how our words and our government work. But Gondry took his access to the great thinker and wasted it. An interviewee is only as good as his interviewer, and the director proves inept, asking questions at random, stumbling over his own inelegant English. (It’s hard to discuss dense concepts in a second language!) Chomsky repeats himself frequently, and goes off on tangents, Gondry only timidly trying to steer him. This is neither a film about Chomsky the man nor hardly about Chomsky’s philosophy, at least not in any coherent manner. It’s rambling and redundant.
The director’s more concerned with his animations; he spent the last three years on them, stopping to work on The Green Hornet presumably for the money, for-hire work to underwrite this labor of love. I like the idea of the animations, the persistent reminder (along with the grinding gears of the Bolex each time we see footage of Chomsky) to the audience that what they’re watching is a mediated piece of art and not some objective artifact. But the animations are merely illustrative, not illuminating—a lot of work for very little payoff, the movie in a nutshell.
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