How necessary is it to be familiar with contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s work in order to enjoy Kirby Dick and Amy Kofman’s new documentary on this controversial but much admired thinker? My guess would be “not very.” Derrida is a charismatic figure — and even those who may find the bite-sized bits of his philosophizing offered here obscure will likely be charmed by this man who falls so easily into his role of gray eminence. Although Derrida cares little for personal probing, and sprays a bit of philosophical heavy-think at his interlocutor every time he’s asked a question that could potentially be emotionally revealing, he does allow the camera to follow him about during his quotidian pursuits. We may not get to learn much about his relationship with his wife, but we do get to see the great man butter his morning muffin.
Where the film inevitably disappoints is it when it tries to convey what the philosopher’s life work has been about. Since so many of Derrida’s inquiries began with a questioning of the basic assumptions that attach themselves to conventional modes of expression, they themselves risk seeming inane. When he talks about distinguishing between loving the singularity of a person and loving some quality of that person, it seems like a distinction without a difference; but it’s the setting up of further probing into how language shapes and/or grows out of the feeling, something beyond the scope of this film. Time is limited, so we’re offered recontextualized snippets from very long threads of thought, which can be either tantalizing or confusing, or sometimes both.
Derrida’s claim to fame outside the academy is the coining of the word “deconstruction,” which, like Norman Mailer’s coinage “factoid” (which he used to signify something that resembled a fact but wasn’t), has taken a life of its own in the popular culture, where it is blithely misused. Just as “factoid” has come to mean a piece of trivia, “deconstruction,” removed from its original context of building up a breakdown, now refers to anything that’s been reworked. Its principal abusers are movie, music and TV critics who, in a truly just world, would be fined every time they use it.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].