Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

Michel Gondry interviews Noam Chomsky. Hilarity ensues.

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

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Written and directed by Michel Gondry. With Noam Chomsky, Michel Gondry.

A hand-drawn freeform doodle illustrates French director Michel Gondry’s interview (or rather, series of interviews) with eminent philosopher and “father of modern linguistics” Noam Chomsky, in one of the director’s strangest, and strangely appealing, films to date. Imagine My Dinner with Andre crossed with Waking Life, drawn on the fly by Bill Plympton, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect here.

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” is a discussion that actually concludes the film. It isn’t about tall men or happiness, but rather our fundamental understanding of language: how do English-speaking children, with no knowledge of language structure, inherently know how to rearrange the phrase “The man who is tall is happy” into the question “Is the man who is tall happy?” 

Children seem to instinctively move the second “is” to the front of the sentence, rather than the first, which might be expected to seem more logical to them. Chomsky concludes that we may have had some of the fundamental understanding of language passed down to us in our genes. 

But this is just one tangent that Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? goes on. Gondry begins the film by explaining his style before diving into some personal topics with Chomsky, though politics – Chomsky gained fame for his anti-war activism during the Vietnam years, and has remained a political commentator for the past four decades – is completely ignored. 

“What is your earliest memory?” Gondry asks him at the beginning. Chomsky describes sitting on a countertop as an infant while his aunt tried to feed him oatmeal, and Gondry illustrates the scene through some stream-of-consciousness sketches. The philosopher describes the anti-Semitism he witnessed growing up during the early years of WWII in Philadelphia. When the director asks Chomsky about his wife, recently deceased, he declines to comment. “It’s too soon,” he says, as Gondry – in one of the few directorial intrusions in the movie – underscores the emotion with a song (Mia Doi Todd’s I Gave You My Home).

But it’s the more philosophical discussions that grab our interest the most, along with the director, who often stops the film to explain what he was trying to say to Chomsky, or where he was trying to lead the discussion. We along, with Gondry, often struggle to keep up with Chomsky’s almost stream-of-consciousness narrative. 

Another fascinating insight is our connection with identity. Chomsky gives the example of a children’s story – Sylvester the Donkey – in which Sylvester is turned into a rock by a witch, and then becomes a donkey again by the end. We identify Sylvester as a donkey even when he is a rock, and it’s a notion of identity that seems to be bred into us – even a child understands this concept.

Meanwhile, Chomsky gives the example of a tree that has had a branch cut off, and is then chopped down. The branch is re-planted, and grows into tree, and we instinctively identify the two trees as separate things, even though they are genetically identical. Why?

I asked myself some further questions: if we cut the tree down the middle, we still identify the two pieces as halves of the original tree. But if we plant them and they grow, we now consider them to be two separate “new” trees. At what point does the original tree lose its identity?

There are no answers here, only questions: like any philosopher following in Plato’s footsteps, Chomsky keeps reminding us to inquire. I’m not so sure Gondry’s style – as he proposes during the film – represents a ‘true’ focus on his subject’s ideas, but Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a fascinating discourse with Chomsky anyway, and a dazzling experiment that deserves to be seen and reseen and discussed.

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