Sunday, November 24, 2013

IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY? Michel Gondry does Noam Chomsky -- so animatedly!

As someone who stands 6'8" tall, I can tell you that the man who is tall is only happy sometimes. But that's not the point of either the title of this delicious and informative documentary, nor of the movie itself. No, this interesting piece from French filmmaker Michel Gondry -- whose The We and the I, released this past spring, remains one of the year's best films -- is all about progressive philoso-pher/linguist/teacher/
activist Noam Chomsky, his life, work and ideas, and as such does pretty good justice to Mr. Chomsky and what he stands for. Oh, and did I mention that the film is mostly animation, charmingly hand-drawn by M. Gondry and as much fun to view as the interview is to hear?

Visually, IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY? is a quietly stunning piece of work, in which the drawings engage with the talk, both the questions posed by Gondry (shown above, left) and the explanations given by Chomsky (shown at left, below, in one of the few moments in the film that are not animated). One might wish that Gondry's English was spoken with a little less French accent because understanding everything he says is sometimes a problem. Yet the film's meat resides in Chomsky's answers and even in his digressions, the man speaks so well, so clearly and fully, that we're hanging on every word.

How very warm does Mr. Chomsky appear and sound, as he tells us of his childhood, his parents, his early years as a bright student. He seems surprisingly (to me, anyway) easy to understand, too -- that is, until he gets into a discussion of how we cannot render the explanation or appearance of a dog by using our usual language skills. I admit to not understanding what the hell this man is talking about here, and I wish Gondry had pushed him more for further specifics. Otherwise, I found myself following things pretty well, as I suspect you will, too.

Concerns here range from the effect of pot smoking on your particular project, the continuity of language (the example used is how it feels to meet an old friend again after 20 years) and the question of why language developed at all -- and then took so many different forms. Often during the film, you may feel that you're sitting in on a fascinating college course taught by a peerless teacher. Which Chomsky surely is.

Gondry's questions hit everything from Chomsky's youth and initial interest in science to World War II and the Holocaust. The question that provokes the saddest moment comes when the filmmaker asks if it is all right to get into the recent death of Carol, Chomsky's wife of many decades. When this man explains, "I'd rather not talk about it. I can't get over it," the loss and pain stabs right through you.

The lovely animation is done with relatively simple, hand-drawn lines that can suddenly get quite complex. These are brought to life with supple movement and colors that are a joy to view. Though Mr. Chomsky, an avowed leftist and progressive, is severely hated by our conservative right-wing, the movie refrains from much that is political until toward the end, when the man talks of his travels to Colombia and elsewhere, what this means and why. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (that title proves to be pure linguistics rather than anything philosophical) -- from IFC Films/Sundance Selects and running 85 minutes -- opened this past Friday here in New York City at the IFC Center. Elsewhere theatrically? I'm haven't a clue, but as the documentary will also hit VOD and digital venues tomorrow, November 25, you'll certainly be able to catch it somewhere soon.

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