Friday, October 1, 2010

Errol Morris First Person: The Smartest Man in the World (2003)

30 minutes, 2003, TV Series

Chris Langan, employed as a security man in a bar, is a heavy, muscular man in his forties. He was physically abused by his stepfather from age four to fourteen, till he was physically strong enough to throw his stepfather out of the house.

He has also come into the limelight as the smartest man in America, with an authenticated IQ between 190 and 210. (Einstein stood around 170, and Darwin at a lowly 130 or so).

Errol Morris interviewed him for half an hour in his TV First Person series. Morris's gift of getting people to talk about themselves candidly is well used in this engrossing interview. He employs the well known technical gadget called the interrotron, which lends an extra dimension of intimacy to the dialog.

Langan did not attend college, having found it a waste of time, but has a great deal of self acquired learning. He is a humble guy, and frankly admits that while there could be others smarter than himself, he has yet to encounter such a person. He thinks society should be run by a kind of intellectual priesthood, people like himself, who can provide a "window on the universe" which the less gifted can share. He says he has encountered hardly anyone with the same depth of understanding of the nature of reality as himself. He endearingly states that people like himself are not intrinsically superior to others, but simply bear more responsibility. "I'm not better than others. After all, I still work in a bar."

He is very much aware of the problems faced by humankind, and believes they can be solved by man becoming a new kind of man, essentially one guided by a concern for the common weal rather than self interest. This is only possible through a logic based religion, which, unlike faith based religions, would leave no room for quibbling. "We have to reach some basis for agreement, otherwise we will end up using what we have for killing each other." We can call the universe the mind of god. God is the principle of consistency, of cohesion, that holds the universe together. "We are all one." We have a piece of this god inside us, in fact are it, and it's possible for an individual to have the whole universe inside his mind. That's what he wants and aims for, anyway.

Society is being run by mediocrities, who also fill universities, so called temples of learning. He is concerned about population explosion and advocates a benign eugenics, wherein people would need state sanction to have children.

He is good natured, humble, pragmatic. He talks neither like a barman, a priest, nor an academic. He is self assured and there is softness and transparency in his expression, on the verge of a smile, exploding into a brief laugh. Whether the God of Logic is going to save the world or not, here is a nice, admirable guy..

The Guardian ranks Morris as number seven among the top forty directors in the world.

Wiki article on Chris Langan


Anonymous said...

A good introduction. I have been considering about buying DVD from Amazon, and I want it more than before.

A small trivia: Robert S. McNamara was actually supposed to be one of the series' subjects, but the interview became longer than Morris thought. Eventually the it was turned into the documentary feature- "The Fog of War".

S. M. Rana said...

The one I have, the second series has, the following interviews:

02.01 "Harvesting Me" — Josh Harris, internet entrepreneur (We Live in Public) and TV addict

02.02 "The Smartest Man in the World" — Chris Langan, bar bouncer with the alleged world's highest IQ

02.03 "The Only Truth" — Murray Richman, lawyer to New York mobsters

02.04 "One in a Million Trillion" — Rick Rosner, professional high school student and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? contestant

02.05 "Leaving the Earth" — Denny Fitch, DC-10 pilot and hero

02.06 "Mr. Personality" — Dr. Michael Stone, forensic pathologist and homicide aficionado

2.03 was really interesting. 2.06 was quite sordid. But the one I have reviewed, 2.02 was really fascinating, not that I believe in his conclusion about a logic based religion, but the guys intelligence seems the real thing.

Anonymous said...

I think you meant to say Langan didn't attend college in your fourth paragraph, not Morris. And actually, Langan did, but he never finished (see Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers).

Certainly sounds like a fascinating guy, though.

S. M. Rana said...


Thanks and corrected. Certainly fascinating, to have a look at the down here from the up there.