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‘Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?’: Noam Chomsky amid the cartoons

What’s up prof? Animatiaccompanies sometimes rambling commentary Noam Chomsky “Is Man Who Is Tall Happy?”  |  IFC FILMS

What’s up, prof? Animation accompanies the sometimes rambling commentary of Noam Chomsky in “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” | IFC FILMS

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Sundance Selects presents a film directed and animated by Michel Gondry. Running time: 88 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: January 7, 2014 6:09AM

French filmmaker Michel Gondry interviews MIT professor emeritus Noam Chomsky on the philosophy of the mind and the history of science in “Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” a diverting tutorial with this takeaway: “Let’s be puzzled about what seems obvious.”

“You find the world’s a very puzzling place and if you’re willing to be puzzled, you can learn,” teaches Chomsky, citing a pantheon of Plato, Galileo, Descartes and Newton. Gondry is like an overindulged undergrad during office hours. Rambling asides include astrology and Asperger’s syndrome.

Subtitled “An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky,” the film blends 2010 interview video, fanciful animation and handwritten subtitles of Gondry’s French-accented narration. Gondry worked animated sequences into his “The Science of Sleep” (2006), quoted a medieval English philosopher in his “Human Nature” (2001) and illustrated the lyrics in a 1993 music video with shots of words on city signs.

“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies,” wrote Chomsky in 1967 when critiquing the Vietnam War. He prescribes “intellectual self-defense” to counter indoctrination. This lifelong anarchist was uncomfortable with the personal focus of the 1992 documentary “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.”

Chomsky’s recent talks include “Who Owns the World?” and “De-Americanizing the World.” He lectured on “Revolutionary Pacifism” in Australia and “Just War Theory” at the United States Military Academy at West Point. “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” mostly omits politics. Chomsky manages to segue from displaced persons camps for liberated Jews in 1945 to how France mistreats the Roma people today.

The film’s title dates from the ’50s, when it served linguists as a specimen of a polar interrogative to demonstrate a structure-dependent syntactic rule. Or, in ordinary language: how a child knows which “is” to move when changing a sentence like “The man who is tall is happy” into a question. Chomsky explains generative grammar with ease, even as he calls language “an infinite array of structured expressions which have a meaning and a sound.”

The 85-year-old linguist is indeed tall but not so happy. He’d rather not talk about his late wife. This is where Gondry doodles a couple bicycling through the clouds in bliss.

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