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SCREEN SPY: "Derrida"

SCREEN SPY: "Derrida"

copyright 2002, Jim Chevallier

Remember Deconstructionism? Once upon a time, even if you weren't in college, you probably heard about it, if only in parodies. And in the arts it's become commonplace to talk about 'deconstructing' situations.

If none of this rings a bell, you probably shouldn't see this documentary. If, on the other hand, you wonder why the hell I'm bothering to explain anything so basic…. Well, this movie is definitely for you.

Jacques Derrida, the philosopher who is credited with or held responsible for Deconstructionism, depending on your point of view, looks remarkably like a very florid Peter Falk. Surprisingly, he has traces of the same diffidence and sweetness as well. Surprisingly, because as philosophies go, Deconstructionism is not particularly warm and fuzzy.

But Derrida himself is quietly passionate. Passionate first of all about his ideas, which he seems almost incapable of NOT expressing (as is amusingly illustrated when he's asked a question he "can't" answer, then does, despite himself, at length.) But also, in a very affecting, understated way, about his wife of fifty years and his family. A family, it should be said, that doesn't quite understand where he came from; philosophy wasn't exactly a family tradition. Yet the brother who tells us this says it with evident affection, and Derrida himself speaks at length about his beloved sister.

Another kind of passion comes through when he describes being jeered by his Algerian playmates as all the Jews were kicked out of Algerian schools. He remains very sensitive to injustice, though unlike his devout parents, he's a secular Jew.

Also, subtle thinker that he is, he's quite capable of being blunt. As when a TV interviewer lengthily asks him if he thinks 'Seinfeld' (which she has to describe to him) is a good representation of Deconstructionism. "I don't think," he says mildly, "that the purpose of Deconstructionism is to create sitcoms. If someone wants to understand Deconstructionism, they should turn off the TV and do their homework."

The best moments in the film are these, and some very amusing moments when he's caught off-guard (notably one where he tries to answer a complex question while the sound man fiddles endlessly with his inner jacket pocket, casually removing its contents as he struggles to clip on a mike.) Less successful are oracular voiceovers of excerpts from his work. The ambient music under these (by Ryuichi Sakamoto) is lovely, but also emphasizes their artiness.

Since the target audience for this film is likely to include many French speakers, it doesn't help that co-director Amy Ziering Kofman conducts the interviews herself, in a very awkward French. This must be weighed against her long association with her subject, which adds to the film's intimacy. And anyone with an interest in Derrida or philosophy in general will probably want to see it. But Derrida's personal charm and grace never inform the movie quite enough to tempt the unitiated all the way in.