You only need to watch the documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky for 10 minutes to realize that Chomsky's 1971 debate with Michel Foucault on Dutch TV will not be registered in the history books as his strangest encounter with a famous Frenchman. That honor, at this point in time, goes to Michel Gondry, the director and interviewer of An Animated Conversation. The things that Gondry and Chomsky have in common are exhausted soon after one numbers their membership in the human race, the color of their skin, their sex, and their sexuality. Gondry makes films and videos that draw heavily from the European surrealist tradition and are accessible to the basic American consumer (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Green Hornet). Chomsky is a philosopher/linguist who subjects this or that aspect of language to careful and very rational analysis and writes books that are understood only by professionals in his field (Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory).
True, Chomsky is a public intellectual, but this role, which is linked to his work as a leading critic of American capitalism and imperialism, is barely mentioned in the documentary. Gondry instead focuses on what is as far from him—his world, his thinking, his art—as possible: Chomsky's role as the creator of a major 20th-century concept, universal grammar. Though dealing with a very complicated intellectual, Gondry tries to keep the questions simple: How did he become Chomsky? What was his first memory? What was his childhood like? What was his father like? When did he become interested in ideas? Can he explain reincarnation? And so on and so on. And Chomsky answers his questions as if all of this is totally normal, as if the day before he was interviewed by the director of The Avengers, and tomorrow it will be the director of The Amazing Spider-Man, but today it's the director of The Green Hornet (a superhero film that made almost a quarter of a billion dollars at the box office).
Chomsky answers Gondry with the certainty of an old and huge computer printer. Questions are punched into the processor, and the answers beat out with no stops or errors. To make some lightness out of Chomsky's academic heaviness, Gondry decorates the responses with whimsical animations. When Chomsky explains, for example, the way a child learns a language, we see the animation of a big baby receiving light rays of words from a mother or family members or society and then processing these rays in its own big and doodly head. The more academic Chomsky becomes, the more whimsical Gondry's drawings become. This, I think, is the second-best thing about Animated Conversation.
The best thing about the documentary is the one and only time Chomsky cracks, the only time the human warmth Gondry is searching for in his doodles appears in the philosopher's voice. This is the moment when the interviewer asks the interviewee about his dead wife, Carol. The suddenness of the hurt caught in the philosopher's throat makes it clear that he would completely collapse if they talked about her. It's better to take the conversation in another direction. Chomsky is willing to talk about everything on earth but the woman he married at 21, had three children with, and watched die in 2008. That's how much he loves her.
Chomsky does, however, mention that he no longer goes to the movies or to restaurants. He has lost interest in the pleasures of life. All color has been drained from his social world. This is a man whose whole being is now facing the end, the other void, the nothingness of personal extinction. Also, this is a man whose career and ideas are no longer fashionable. His sun rose in the late '50s, when he revolutionized linguistics and overthrew the leading school of that time, B.F. Skinner's behaviorist psychology. The behaviorists basically placed many of their eggs into the basket marked "experience." A young Chomsky came along and convincingly argued that language was not learned by experience but built into the human mind. Chomsky then went on to dominate his field for a good three decades. But eventually his theories became old hat, and people turned more and more to an evolutionary perspective of language and mind. Some critics even argued that his refusal to accept the new evolutionary ideas, and his dogged commitment to the theories that made him world-famous long ago, actually did harm to the progress of the field.
One quibble: Gondry seems totally unaware of Chomsky's decline as a linguist and the growing disinterest in his concepts about the human brain and language; he seems to have no idea that he is talking to a man who long ago ceased to make waves. The linguist who displaced Skinner has, too, been displaced. His career and the big ideas he expresses in this documentary are not startling or amazing or shaking the foundations of the intellectual world anymore, but are deep in the twilight years. Chomsky's politics, however, are still alive and kicking.