Michel Gondry likes video stores. He is, after all, the director of the ultimate VHS sonnet, Be Kind Rewind, in which Jack Black and Mos Def re-create classics like Ghostbusters from plastic bags and tinsel. (Sad about the death of Blockbuster? Give it a watch.)
One night, Gondry was browsing his local store for tapes to rent when he seized upon two Noam Chomsky documentaries: Manufacturing Consent and Rebel Without a Cause. He didn't know much about the 84-year-old linguist and agitator. "Sometimes I pick videos for no reason," shrugs Gondry. "It's true, I'm ignorant — and I'm French, so I have an excuse."
Superficially, the two men couldn't be more different. Gondry is the impish romantic behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Chomsky is a professor emeritus at MIT who was voted (in a Prospect/Foreign Policy poll) the world's top public intellectual. Yet Gondry was struck by the way both men view reality at a slant. Though Chomsky had already said yes to over 100 documentaries — he's been in more movies than Elvis — he agreed to sit down for one more, the sprightly, brain-prickling Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
It's an oddly perfect pairing. Gondry is fascinated by artifice. Chomsky is dedicated to truth. But both are curious about how people interpret image and sound, be it an audience absorbing a film or a baby studying its mother's speech. Gondry was flush with questions. "I come from an artistic background," he explains. "My parents were playing music, my grandfather was an inventor. I always wonder what it is that is transmitted to me through genetics, or what it is I developed because of these surroundings."
Chomsky hadn't heard of him. "He never watches movies," says Gondry. His secretary and her son persuaded him to meet with the mad, curly-haired Frenchman for several hours over several months and answer all his questions about memory and language and death. Their conversation veers from Plato and Newton to horoscopes, the afterlife, and a bedtime story about a donkey who turns into a rock. For a while, the two attempt to define a tree. Then they confess to the times they cheated in school before segueing into how to farm in Liberia. Says Gondry, "Sometimes he'd look at his watch and I would think, 'Maybe he's bored?'" Hardly.
A truly true documentary is impossible. Edit an interview shorter by seconds, and you've imposed an outside artistic choice on the footage. Audiences forgive — or forget — the director's manipulation, even in egregious cases like the Oscar-nominated Spellbound, which interviewed the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion only after she won. "I was thinking, 'How is it possible in the 16 kids they picked to follow the one that actually wins?' And then I was told they did it backwards. That was a letdown," grumbles Gondry. "To me, it's not honest to cheat on that."
So Gondry decided to make the opposite: a cartoon documentary where Chomsky's big ideas are illustrated by colorful dogs and trees and stick figures. Shrugs Gondry, "Animation, at least you don't pretend that it's real."
It took him three years. He was supposed to be finishing Mood Indigo, a film in which Audrey Tautou discovers a flower growing in her lungs. Instead, at night he'd hole up and draw Chomsky's universal grammar theory with Sharpies. "I was frantically animating," sighs Gondry. "I looked unshaved." He had his own deadline: Chomsky had to see the film before he died. "It's a normal thing to consider when you talk to someone who is 84. Unless they are Medusa."
Besides the strain on Gondry's wrist, his other big hurdle was his shaky English. At several points, Chomsky misunderstands his questions, and you hear the quiet panic in Gondry's voice as he realizes he'll have to politely abandon that line of thinking. Another time, Gondry mistakes the word "yield" for "eel." For film about the meaning of words, these clashes are wryly apt. In fact, Gondry embraces the confusion.
"It's always something I rely upon, is my bad understanding of English, to sort of temper or defuse my lack of knowledge," says Gondry. "He would spell out words, which he would not do if I was English."
Their language barrier is just an extreme example of what happens whenever two people try to communicate. "There is what you think, and then there is what you express, and then there is what I hear, and then what I understand," he explains. And it's in the gaps, the accidental brilliance of two people combining brains, that he finds inspiration. Take the whimsical music video masterpieces he directed for Björk's "Human Behavior" and "Army of Me." Recalls Gondry, "I would understand one word out of five of the lyrics, and I would recreate the bridges between the words to build my own story."
Gondry has collaborated with some of the wildest brains in the world: Charlie Kaufman, Paul McCartney, Kanye West. But his hours with Chomsky stand out. "To have access to a mind like this was very exciting," he beams. "I meet very famous artists, but in the back of my head I know there is some luck and bullshit in their achievement, so I don't get fooled." Chomsky, on the other hand, is "somebody who wrote 100 books, who brought some thinking that changed people. Even if I meet the president of the United States, I know he does terrible things and had to compromise all the time. I think Chomsky doesn't compromise at all."