By Jonathon Sharp

How does the world seem to you? Do you grow older, finding you have a pretty good understanding of the way things work socially, politically and scientifically? Or do you find yourself often puzzled, caught up in a web-like mess of extremely complex systems you have no clue how to grapple with despite honest attempts to learn a thing or two each day?

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If you’re in the second category (and you’ve got a soft spot for hand-drawn animation), Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? should be on your to-see list. There’s not too many documentaries like it.

Here’s the concept: Director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) records multiple interviews with linguist/philosopher/scientist Noam Chomsky — one of our nation’s most prominent thinkers — and then he animates the conversations, in order to give a portrait of Chomsky and a window to his worldview. The experience is not unlike watching one of those YouTube videos in which a hand with pen draws out a visual representation of a TED talk. Gondry’s drawings, however, are different; they’re electric, personal, intricate and odd. With his neon-like colors moving on a black field, the conversations-in-motion come across like dreams. Images flow into one another, and some reoccur, quite artfully. 

But for Gondry, animation is just the means of highlighting the content of these lofty, meandering conversations. In the very first moments of the film,  Gondry literally writes on the screen that his drawings are a means of transparency. Film, he says in his heavy French accent, is inherently manipulative to audiences: it doesn’t present reality, but someone’s carefully constructed illusion of it. Animation, on the other hand, is obviously the creator’s interpretation of reality, and thus it gives the audience a better means to grapple with the ideas and themes depicted in the drawings. Got that? Good.

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And be prepared for lots of grappling. The conversations go from the stuff of an insightful interview  — What’s your first memory? How did you get on with your parents? — to the esoteric: logic problems, the limits of man’s capacity to understand the world, and the evolutionary problems presented by human language, to name a few.

And I feel I should mention that I went into the film not knowing much at all of Chomsky’s linguistic work, specifically in regards to generative grammar, which is (in a nut shell) the idea that humans innately know how to construct sentences. And you don’t need to know much of that either. The title of the movie is actually taken from a sequence in which Chomsky shows Gondry the concept. On the other hand, if you are familiar with the thinker’s linguistic and scientific work, you’ll probably get more out of this than I did.

But for us dummies, feeling stupid is kind of a part of the movie. Gondry will even tell us, in little asides, when he felt stupid talking to Chomksy. And he also makes no attempt to smooth over rough spots in the conversations — the parts in which the complex language used becomes an issue and the flow of ideas effectively freezes. But complexity — and the difficulty it presents to our minds — is kind of the point. Realizing that we don’t get how things work is also kind of the point. That realization, the movie says more than once, is the only way to effectively ask questions and thereby learn something knew about the world, about language, about human experience.

So, yes, if you see this, you’ll probably feel like a dummy, but the brilliance of the animation and both men involved takes the edge off.

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Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? is playing at St. Anthony Main. 

Jonathon Sharp