By Jeffrey M. Anderson
One of the most interesting scenes in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's new documentary, Derrida, which opens today at the Opera Plaza and at the Rafael Film Center, does not involve Jacques Derrida's ideas.
Rather, it entails a young, attractive blonde who giggles and fawns over the 70-something philosopher and asks him to autograph his book for her.
It turns out that philosophers, like rock stars, are babe magnets.
In that light, the scrappy Derrida is an entirely appropriate portrait of the man who introduced the idea of deconstructionism and may be the world's greatest living philosopher.
Directors Ziering (who makes her feature debut here) and Dick (who made the notorious Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, from 1997) try to keep the filmmaking as fluid, or as slippery, as their subject's thought patterns.
When we first meet Derrida, he's a man like any other, trying to find his keys before he goes out the door. The filmmakers follow him through the street and try to get him to speak about the nature of biography and the way appearing on camera changes identity. But he doesn't bite; he suggests that he merely acts differently when the camera is on. (In one scene, he explains that he ordinarily works in his pajamas but that he got dressed for the film.)
In another scene, the filmmakers ask Derrida to tell the story of how he met his wife, but neither the philosopher nor his wife will budge. Later, they show Derrida the footage of his refusal and ask for his thoughts. Still later, they show him the footage of him watching the footage of his refusal and ask for his thoughts.
This sequence is meant to illustrate the notion of deconstructionism, "the definition of which is a challenge to the attempt to establish any ultimate or secure meaning in a text." The scene is almost ridiculous, but fortunately, it's a ridiculousness so extreme it becomes interesting.
This is not to say Derrida undermines the great thinker's works. He gets plenty of time to discuss his theories, and the film provides lengthy quotes from his many published works. Sometimes these quotes snag and unravel as you're listening to them -- you spend the entire quote chasing after its meaning like a runaway roll of toilet paper -- but bits and pieces stick.
One of the clearer presentations has Derrida speaking about forgiveness just after visiting Nelson Mandela's former prison cell.
Sometimes the filmmakers themselves seem to be at a loss for what to do with their subject. Groping for a little help, they ask Derrida what he would like to see in a documentary about, say, Hegel. He responds, "His sex life."
Derrida clearly loves to baffle his audience as much as challenge him. In one scene, a journalist trying to get Derrida to link deconstructionism with "Sienfeld." Derrida has no idea what she's talking about and dismisses her, telling her to read more.
Ultimately, films are about people. And whether or not you're enlightened by any of Derrida's lectures on "the other" and "the self," Derrida is an undeniably fascinating and playful fellow.