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Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky

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Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky

A documentary-like dazzler, Michel Gondry's Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? proves another edifying treasure-hunt into the depths of a living mind. Gondry meets with linguist/philosopher/activist Noam Chomsky in his MIT office, where they launch into a wide-ranging conversation that starts with Chomsky's childhood, crashes into 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. The high points concern Chomsky's field-making insight: 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 film flirts with becoming a dialect comedy, 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, though, as his squiggling figures groove within the complexities of the talk, often clarifying the concepts. 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.

Alan Scherstuhl

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