‘Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?’: For fanboys of Noam Chomsky
Does anyone remember My Dinner With Andre, Louis Malle’s 1981 film capturing a brainy, wide-ranging conversation between playwright/actor Wallace Shawn and theater director Andre Gregory?
Okay, relocate the setting from a Manhattan restaurant to an office at MIT, and replace the urbane aesthete Gregory with cranky linguist and political curmudgeon Noam Chomsky. Next, imagine Shawn as a Frenchman with an accent so thick that it can be understood only with subtitles, written on the screen in his own scratchy, cursive handwriting. Finally, pretend that the whole thing, instead of being filmed on camera, is an audio recording animated with drawings that alternate between childlike doodles and acid-induced hallucinations.
You’ll have a pretty good idea of what watching Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is like. Directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) from a series of conversations that Gondry audio-recorded – and only partly filmed, on a noisy, antique, windup camera – the film is probably of interest only to those viewers who, like Gondry himself apparently, already have an obsession with Chomsky.
I’m not saying the man isn’t wicked smart or interesting, but I could live a happy life without knowing that Chomsky’s earliest childhood memory involves a 11/2-year-old version of himself sitting on a kitchen counter, refusing to eat his oatmeal. Although that tidbit is a prelude of sorts to a deeper discussion that lurches from language acquisition to the nature of consciousness to the history of science to epistemology to religion to Chomsky’s fearlessness about dying, too much of the film involves Gondry inquiring, like a breathless fanboy, about things that nobody except a groupie would care about.
Gondry’s whimsical animations aren’t bad, and they sometimes help to clarify a few of the more abstract ideas that Chomsky brings up, seemingly haphazardly at times.