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French filmmaker and animator Michel Gondry says that Noam Chomsky is “the most important thinker alive,” so he set out to interview Chomsky before he died.

Gondry is best known for making clever music videos and twisted feature films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He hasn’t made a name for himself as a talking-heads documentarian. Judging by Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?he probably won’t. This film is anything but a talking-heads documentary.

Gondry incorporates footage into his animations
Gondry incorporates footage into his animations

Gondry hand-animated Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?over the course of years. He occasionally films Chomsky while he talks, and that footage is incorporated into the animation. Gondry presents the film as a personal conversation, rather than as a completed interview. Therefore the audio and continuity are rougher than you’d expect if you thought you were going to see a documentary about Chomsky.

Chomsky is generous with his interviews, but he’s not always the ideal subject. It’s not just Gondry’s thick French accent that gets in the way, it also seems that Chomsky will answer a different question than the one asked, if he has a better answer. For example, Gondry asks about the correlation between language and memory. Chomsky’s answer is about deaf children learning language. Gondry asks what’s going on when a child sees a drawing of something she’s never seen in real life, say a giraffe. Chomsky can’t seem to understand the question. He answers with a deeply interesting story about the continuity of identity, but it’s not what Gondry was asking.

Gondry’s saving grace is his humility. He admits his frustration at the questions that don’t work, and at how long this film is taking to complete. But he soldiers on, and he does get enough material for a nice biography of Chomsky, who is known both for his liberal political philosophy, and for his groundbreaking work in linguistics.

As the title suggests, Gondry wanted to highlight the linguistics. It’s a subject I’m quite interested in, and I hoped that this film would delve more deeply. But more of the film is about Chomsky’s biography than his work. The biographical segments are probably the most successful: Chomsky recalling his earliest memory of an aunt and some oatmeal. His liberal elementary school education. His linguistic inspiration reading Hebrew with his father. How he raised his own children. The loss of his wife after a lifetime together.

I like that Gondry asks about Chomsky’s place in secular and scientific culture — about atheism or a what to say to those who believe in astrology. Chomsky handles the questions with kindness and grace.

The film ends with biography blending (finally) into Chomsky’s linguistic achievement. Chomsky recalls pursuing his college thesis, thinking that the conventional wisdom was completely wrong and doing instead what he thought made more sense. “Generative grammar” is the magical phrase, and it has to do with how we think about language. In short, what Chomsky said is that it’s a system of programming rules, rather than a system of classical grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.

However, if you really want to understand the new thinking in linguistics, you’re better off picking up a book (one of my favorites is The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, who studied under Chomsky), than watching this fanciful but too flighty animated interview.