Postmodernism and Gondry's 'Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?'

IFC

By Zachary Witus, Daily Arts Writer
Published April 6, 2014

I want to do the impossible here: I want to talk about “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky” without really talking about Chomsky, author of works such as “Manufacturing Consent.” Instead, I’m interested in the filmmaking of Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and in the fate of the present postmodern project. Will self-reference and self-deprecating humor continue to excuse postmodern artists from their own creative critiques, or will their irony transform into a stain of hypocrisy that justifies the present postmodern temple’s collapse into abysmal absurdity?

Gondry’s new film is a case study for these larger questions. To those already interested in the postmodern project, these questions will probably seem obviously imperative. To those who have no idea what I mean by “postmodernism,” maybe this article will illuminate the subject. For starters, take a popular film like “The Muppets” that recognizes itself as a film with in-dialogue statements like, “Here comes a major plot point.” That sort of ironic self-reference is a typical postmodern motif.

Getting back to the subject at hand, I actually only want to directly talk about the first three minutes and 30 seconds of “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” — before Chomsky formally enters it. Analyzing this section of the film allows me to (I think) fairly ignore Chomsky in order to pay closer attention to the filmmaking itself. Further, the first three minutes and 30 seconds feature an inciting explication of the film by Gondry that reveals the film’s intended philosophical and artistic paradigm in a very useful way, analytically speaking.

Accompanied by his own handwritten scrawl, Gondry (off-screen) speaks directly to the audience:

“Film and video are both by their nature manipulative: the editor/director proposes an assemblage of carefully selected segments that he/she has in mind … And, as a result, the voice that appears to come from the subject actually comes from the filmmaker. And that’s why I find the process manipulative: the human brain forgets the cuts — a faculty specifically human, that, as I will learn, Noam calls psychic continuity. The brain absorbs a constructed continuity as a reality and consequently gets convinced to witness a fair representation of the subject.”

Gondry does an excellent job reciting the typical postmodernist claims about film: Film often pretends not to be film and that, more or less, makes it coercive. Therefore postmodern filmmakers want to find ways to make films that express this critique without being hypocritical.

In this film, Gondry does so with animation. “(Animation) is clearly the interpretation of its author. If messages, or even propaganda, can be delivered, the audience is constantly reminded that they are not watching reality.”

The film, therefore, can be seen through the lens of Gondry’s desire not to deceive the audience. And thus his goal for the rest of the film has been firmly established: Don’t let the audience “forget the cuts.”

So how does Gondry try to not to let us forget the cuts? The first three minutes and thirty seconds provide an overture to the work as whole, at least in this regard. The film’s exposition works to reveal and subvert the inherent coerciveness of film by inventorying the film’s cinematic tools. The very first frame, squarely bird’s-eye-view over Gondry’s backlit animation desk, displays Gondry’s colorful palate of Sharpies. Then Gondry’s hand physically enters the frame, declaring, “Here I am! I am the filmmaker manipulating the film.” His hand draws a hand, desk, lamp and sheet of paper. Once again, he is inventorying, saying, “This is the stuff of my film.” Gondry’s hand exits the frame and the now animated hand begins to draw. It draws a cartoon Gondry sitting at a desk, creating the animation. Lastly, on the subtitle frame, Gondry displays his own Bolex film camera, which he used to record his conversation with Chomsky. Thus here, in short, is supposed to be the (at least partial) achievement of Gondry’s goal of artistic honesty: deliberate showing of the constitutive elements of his film in order to expose the subjectivity of Gondry’s artistic interpretation.

But I’m not convinced that Gondry is really as honest as he’s trying to be, and I’m skeptical that he’s even capable of being so honest considering the constraints of human “psychic continuity,” which he recognized himself. Gondry sees animation as distinctly different from other forms of film. Thereby he grants (his) animation relative propagandistic immunity.

But this is strange to me. Why should animation be exempt from Gondry’s critiques of film? Gondry gave us some reasons, but I’m not so sure they hold up. For example, when I was a kid, Bugs Bunny didn’t feel like it was “clearly the interpretation of its author.” One might argue, “Oh, you were just a child then.” But I would say that I’m still a child now, especially when I’m watching a movie. Even when Looney Tunes were at their epitome of meta postmodern expression (e.g., “Duck Amuck”), I never felt like I was really aware of the manipulative influence of its author — especially not while I was watching. I didn’t feel like I was “constantly reminded that (I wasn’t) watching reality” — not when I was watching Road Runner and not when I was watching “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?”

The only time viewers can be conscious of the author’s influence is when the flow of psychic continuity is disrupted (e.g., with analytic thought like the kind Gondry demonstrates in his inciting explication). This is to say, psychic continuity can only be disrupted when the viewer sees “the cuts.” But, like gestalt figure-ground drawings of faces and goblets, the viewer cannot see the cuts and maintain the flow of psychic continuity simultaneously. So, despite Gondry’s sentiments, his animation cannot subvert the coerciveness of film because animation is no exception to the principle that film must maintain psychic continuity for the viewer.

Gondry’s unfulfilled goal of artistic honesty represents a greater problem of the present postmodern project. Despite many of the postmodernists’ attempts at self-exposition and self-deprecation through repeated self-reference, they often cannot escape the underlying hypocrisy of their own creative critiques. For those who worry about such problems — artists, writers, thinkers, etc. — it presents us with an opportunity for new solutions. How will this problem be solved? How will the next art and philosophy movement look? Thankfully, the answers seem to still be undecided.