Here’s a question you never thought you’d hear Noam Chomsky answer: “What makes you happy?” That puzzler comes near the end of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, an animated marvel of a film rigged to set your brain off like fireworks. The great linguist and activist’s easy surge of words finally slows a little. “Happy?” he says, as if uncertain why anyone would ask him such a thing. “Children, grandchildren, friends. I don’t really think about it much. I don’t spend much — any — time in self-indulgence, especially since my wife died.”
After that first hesitation, this all comes out in Chomsky’s usual matter-of-fact tone, as if he were addressing students on one of the many topics he’s mastered: cognitive science, Western philosophy, the plight of disenfranchised peoples the world over. As he speaks, though, we see a sketch of him slump-walking through the world alone, his face set in pensive thought, the lines delineating his form so thick and purplish they could be Magic Markered. This illustrated Chomsky enters a movie theater just after the real Chomsky, now north of 80 years old, speaks of “self-indulgence.” A movie starts, another cartoon: Chomsky and his late wife, gliding along on bicycles together, even as the man himself moves on to a topic he’s much more comfortable with: how gratifying it is to see the resilience of the Kurdish people. The moment could be mawkish, but it holds within it a telling insight: The only way to become like Chomsky is to have no time for flourishes of affecting whimsy.
Such flourishes, of course, are a hallmark of director Michel Gondry, best know for his for-the-ages romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A documentary-like dazzler, Gondry’s Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? proves another edifying treasure hunt into the depths of a living mind. Gondry meets with Chomsky in his MIT office, where they launch into a wide-ranging conversation that starts with Chomsky’s childhood, crashes into Galileo and the origins of modern science, and then considers at length the way our brains process and develop language — and the relationship between the words we use to speak and think of the world and the world itself.
Imagine an doozy of an office-hours audience with the most brilliant professor you never had, set inside a kaleidoscopic lightboard of a shared mind-space, where everything that professor says is illustrated in pulsing, wheeling, mercurial cartoons. It’s a mad thrill, like witnessing a great evolutionary leap of the margin notes you may have doodled in class.
Gondry steers the conversation to linguistic and philosophical topics, mostly avoiding Chomsky’s politics. The film’s high points concern Chomsky’s field-making insight: That children’s ability to generate and comprehend unique bursts of language suggests that we must be born with the rules and structures of language already imprinted on our minds. The title comes from one of Chomsky’s examples of how kids understand complex grammatical rules nobody has taught them: Asked to turn the sentence “the man who is tall is happy” into a question, English-speaking kids who haven’t yet studied subjects and predicates just know to say “Is the man who is tall happy?” rather than “Is the man who tall is happy?” This breakthrough gave us modern linguistics, much cognitive science, and has proven so profound that it doesn’t seem gauche when Chomsky implicitly compares himself to Galileo, who inaugurated modern science by daring to be “puzzled” about truths everyone else considered settled.
Gondry the interviewer sometimes struggles to keep up with Chomsky the lecturer. The film flirts with becoming a dialect comedy at times, as Gondry — who has a thick French accent and slightly imperfect English — struggles with vocabulary or can’t quite get his questions across. There’s no doubting Gondry’s lucidity as an animator, as his squiggling figures groove within the complexities of the talk, often clarifying the concepts.
One killer example: As Chomsky argues of the gulf between what we perceive through our senses and what our minds actually know to be true, Gondry shows us a shaggy pom-pom of a caveman beating a pink lump of brain with a bone — a perfect visualization of the human tendency to fight off scientific fact. Gondry often draws trees whose roots and branches resemble synapses, synapses whose tangled connections resemble those trees, rivers and dogs and cities and brains that all spin into each other, signals and signifiers in furious bloom. It’s gorgeous and primitive, enlightening and elusive, intimate and always surprising. This is a film to see and then see again, to soak in and marvel at and — like its director — try to keep up with. It should number on that too-small list of things that indisputably make people happy.