‘Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?’ * 1/2
Does anyone remember My Dinner With André, Louis Malles 1981 film capturing a brainy, wide-ranging conversation between playwright/actor Wallace Shawn and theater director André Gregory?
Okay, relocate the setting from a Manhattan restaurant to an office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 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.
Youll 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 partly filmed on a noisy, antique, wind-up camera – the film is probably of interest only to those viewers who, like Gondry himself apparently, already have an obsession with Chomsky.
Im not saying the man isnt wicked smart or interesting, but I could live a happy life without knowing that Chomskys earliest memory involves a 1 1/2 -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 Chomskys fearlessness about dying, too much of the film involves Gondry inquiring, like a breathless fan, about things nobody except a groupie would care about.
So Chomsky experienced anti-Semitism in Philadelphia growing up. Its regrettable, but so what? That anecdote is presented as neither formative nor illuminating.
Gondrys whimsical animations arent bad, and they sometimes help to clarify a few of the more abstract ideas that Chomsky brings up, seemingly haphazardly at times.The truest words in the film are Gondrys when he says, apropos of yet another one of his subjects conversational digressions, Noam took the conversation to a different place.
Whether thats a place youll want to go is not for me to say. Know only this: The title of the film refers not to the nature of happiness, but to the nature of our linguistic hard-wiring.
How is it, Chomsky wonders, that a child learns that the interrogative form of the statement, The man who is tall is happy, is, Is the man who is tall happy? and not Is the man who tall is happy?
Our understanding how you turn it into a question illustrates our instinctual grasp of the difference between what Chomsky calls structural proximity and linear proximity.
Food for thought? Maybe so, Noam, but I say its spinach, and I say the hell with it.