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Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

Theatrical Review

IFC Films; 85 minutes

Director: Michel Gondry

Written by on November 19, 2013 

Michel Gondry‘s new documentary, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, is nothing more than a collection of conversations with renowned philosopher Noam Chomsky, accompanied by the filmmaker’s drawn-over animation. Luckily, this is more than enough, thanks to Chomsky’s fascinating point of view and Gondry’s endless curiosity. We are watching two very fascinating, very different minds interact, and the result is a bit inspiring.

The two men talk about everything from the birth of modern science to a young infant’s intrinsic understanding of language and how that is possible. Throughout these series of talks, Gondry will consistently pose questions that Chomsky, instead of answering, will make his own, choosing to talk about topics that are only marginally related. While frustrating at first, Chomsky’s tangents soon take on a life on their own, and Gondry’s artistic hand follows suit, his animated slates both crude and charming as accompaniment.

No matter the subject, the central topic of this film is the question “why?.” About asking the question and about those who have asked the question before, resulting in both great struggle and great success. About our human behavior and our need to find meaning and reason in the world while we stubbornly take for granted things in our life that we do not understand.

When asked about religion and the existence of many belief systems, Chomsky admits that while he does not subscribe to any of them (“I believe you go from dust to dust and there’s no meaning in your life,” he says with a smile), he completely understands why so many people do believe. Life, after all, is hard. To be comfortable with the knowledge that it’s all there is makes it even harder.

Chomsky’s matter-of-fact view of the world meshes well with Gondry’s abstract (if also surprisingly literal) animation. As they chat, we watch art and science clash and collaborate all at once. While Gondry struggles to wrap his head around some of the points Chomsky is making, Chomsky reveals himself to be a man of feeling and emotion.

When Gondry asks Chomsky to talk about the death of his wife Carol (who passed away in 2008), the philosopher retreats, admitting his continued inability to properly handle her loss. When asked about what makes him happy – after admitting he doesn’t think about it much – he references his children and grandchildren as main sources of joy.

This is a simple piece of art documentation that has the ability to serve as a spark for viewers both creatively and cognitively. There are no grand conclusions or epiphanies, but rather an hour and a half of teaching the way Chomsky tells us teaching is meant to be: the presentation of a stream of thoughts and questions that the student can then ride in whatever direction their own questions take them.

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky hits theaters on Friday, November 22nd and VOD on November 25th.


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