Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

Near the beginning of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, filmmaker Michel Gondry admits to his interview subject, Noam Chomsky, that he’s a little nervous. Sitting down with Chomsky, who wouldn’t be? Decades before his penetrating critiques of U.S. foreign policy made him a left-wing culture hero, Chomsky revolutionized the field of linguistics with his book Syntactic Structures (1957), which proposed that syntax—the ordering of words in a sentence—was the most important element in written or verbal communication, even more important than the words themselves. Since then he’s published more than a hundred books, accepted more than three dozen honorary degrees, and contributed commentary to scores of political documentaries. By any measure, Chomsky—who turns 85 on Saturday—is one of the most influential thinkers in the world.

Gondry is no match for him intellectually, and in their two conversations, shot with an old Bolex camera at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in April and October 2010, Chomsky responds to the filmmaker’s innocent questions with a master class in philosophy and cognitive science. Yet Gondry, known for such whimsical fantasies as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), The Science of Sleep (2006), and Be Kind Rewind (2008), contributes a powerful visual response by pairing their audio track with wildly imaginative animation sequences that illustrate and sometimes reflect on Chomsky’s ideas. Aside from a few frames within the frame that show the professor speaking to Gondry in a conference room, the entire film is 2-D animation, ranging from free-spirited doodles to more elaborate geographic drawings that help explain Chomsky’s concepts. The end result is a striking inquiry into how we comprehend the world, neatly divided between a man of words and a man of images.

Their conversation proves fruitful because Gondry, though outgunned academically, is intensely curious about the human mind; his live-action features are full of pseudo-scientific conceits that speak to a fascination with memory, dreaming, and creative thought. He never brings up Chomsky’s famous supposition that language skills are innate, programmed into the brain at birth, but in their first interview Gondry comes back again and again to the question of what mental powers we bring into the world with us. When he mentions reincarnation, Chomsky is ready to dismiss him, but the filmmaker persists, conceding that the idea is a “fairy tale” but arguing in his broken English that it makes him “look to a new being as a fully competent person.” Chomsky relates this to Plato’s theory of remembrance, which holds that our recognition of forms comes to us from our past lives, and later explains Isaac Newton and David Hume’s notion of a “cognitive endowment” we inherit at birth.

Sometimes Gondry’s animation lapses into simple literalization of what Chomsky is saying, but even then the quicksilver imagery can be arresting for how precisely it captures relationships between ideas. When Chomsky launches into an explanation of how infants begin to acquire language skills long before they can speak, Gondry draws a pair of lips that turn into the splayed pages of a book and then rotate 90 degrees to become a woman’s vulva as a baby’s head comes bursting through it. These constantly mutating forms keep the discussion lively, but they’re also linked to one of the more important ideas being discussed: whether a thing retains its essence even as its physical form changes. Chomsky uses the example of a bedtime story his grandchildren loved, William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble; the title character is a donkey who gets turned into the rock, though children effortlessly understand that he’s still really a donkey. This “psychic continuity” is a mental construct we retain all our lives.

As a filmmaker—and one who got his start in the surreal, fast-moving medium of music video—Gondry understands that this sense of psychic continuity is the very thing that enables him to edit images together and create a single reality for the viewer. His live-action movies often leap back and forth from present to past, from dreams to waking life, from the conscious to the subconscious, so forcefully that after a while the two states begin to seem equivalent. Chomsky floors him with the Ship of Theseus paradox: In Greek mythology, after Theseus returns home from war the planks of his battleship are replaced one by one until the entire thing has been rebuilt. As Thomas Hobbes asked, what then constitutes the original ship—the pile of old planks or the new planks assembled into the ship’s form? Chomsky and Gondry debate the matter at length, but eventually Chomsky persuades him that our image of a ship or a tree or any other object is completely mental and has no relation to anything in the physical world.

Most of the movie consists of this sort of head-spinning argument, yet Gondry also delves into Chomsky’s personal life with a series of offbeat questions that reveal him as a person instead of a walking research library. Born in Philadelphia, he grew up amid the anti-Semitism of the city’s German and Irish populations; he still remembers his German neighbors celebrating the fall of Paris in 1940, though the same people would become the loudest of U.S. patriots after Pearl Harbor. His father, a scholar of Semitic languages, spent every Friday night schooling him in Hebraic grammar, which inspired his early fascination with linguistics. He doesn’t believe in God, though, as he jokingly notes, he doesn’t like rock music either but has nothing against people who do. When asked what makes him happy, he cites his children and grandchildren, the same answer you’d expect from any father regardless of his fame and professional accomplishments.

Words fail him only once, when Gondry asks about his wife, Carol, who died in 2008. “I’d just as soon not talk about that,” Chomsky mutters. “I can’t get over it.” The two married in 1949, when he was 20 and she was 19, and spent nearly 60 years together. Gondry responds to Chomsky’s remark with a scene in which a cartoon Chomsky gets into a double bed alone, pulls down the covers on his wife’s side to reveal a hole in the mattress, and crawls through it into a cloud-filled sky where the lovers are reunited, biking joyfully together. You wouldn’t expect something so emotional in a movie so relentlessly reasonable. But that’s what pictures are for.

Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect the year France fell to the Germans.