Zeitgeist Video // Unrated // $29.99 // January 20, 2004
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted June 11, 2004
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Generally speaking, two types of people will read this review: Regular readers of this site looking for the latest DVD releases and Derrida fans who find this review on Google or something like that. So I have to say, right off the bat, that the philosophical musings of Jacques Derrida do not hold much fascination for me. His texts are dense with self-referential allusions and pretentious postures. His forming a description of "deconstruction" has spawned countless grad school theses and art critic essays but are of little interest to most folks.

That said, the work of philosophers can be essential taken in their original form. That is, if you want to know about Derrida's mind, you read his work. The documentary Derrida, however, is a wan watering down of the man's themes and thoughts. The problem is that Derrida is exactly the kind of person who can never be captured on film. Co-director Kirby Dick's earlier film Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist succeeded because its subject was so visual. Exploring his inner-workings through the exterior was a journey the filmmaker and audience could share.

Derrida, however, cannot work like that. What journey will the filmmaker take into Derrida's mind that the man hasn't already taken, documented, discussed, lectured on, and, ultimately, grown tired of? We're talking about a guy who sits around and thinks for a living. How can you show that?

It takes a filmmaker of the caliber of Errol Morris (who succeeded with similar goals in A Brief History of Time and The Fog of War) and the Derrida team (Dick and co-director Amy Ziering Kofman) are not up to the challenge. Despite their respect and admiration of Derrida, they barely seem to know their subject at all: At one point Kofman prods "say whatever you want about love." What did she expect? Derrida, of course, squirms a little and then says that he needs a question to continue. She doesn't seem to get it but this isn't the way he operates. I barely know anything about the man but the moment I heard the "question" I cringed. It's a bit embarrassing.

It's possible that the filmmakers were flummoxed at that point anyway. At one point Derrida gleefully states "I'm not going to tell you everything. No. I'm only going to tell you superficial things." At that point the cameras should have been packed up and the crew sent home. Instead the film is filled with pseudo-deconstructionist details like Derrida talking on camera about how the stumbling camerawoman can see him but can't see where she's walking, causing her to stumble. We also get to watch Derrida in a mirror discussing how the Other (a high-fallutin term for someone other than yourself) sees him. Oooh! The mirror! We're the Other and we're only watching a representation of Derrida in a mirror (actually we're only watching a representation of a representation thanks to the TV...) When Derrida stops an interview to comment on the fact that the interview itself is just an artificial environment blah blah blah for the third time you almost want to scream at him. Even the most mainstream viewer at this point is aware that interviews are as much artifice as the most CG Hollywood action scene. He doesn't need to belabor this boring point.

The joke is that for all the stylized post-post-deconstruction flourishes the filmmaker throws in (a biographical voiceover is played in scrambled non-chronological order; We watch Derrida watch an interview of himself talking about the interview itself) Derrida himself must consider the film fake philosophy. At one point a TV interviewer foolishly tries to suggest to him that Seinfeld is a modern example of pop-deconstruction. First, he claims to not know what Seinfeld is (which is believable) and then condescendingly laughs off the notion that something as pedestrian as a sitcom could exhibit any of his grand ideas in action. I hope he doesn't think that this film is more sophisticated than Seinfeld or any of the fine films in recent years that have attempted to use a sense of self-awareness to delve deeper into their own subject matter (Fight Club, Three Kings, Rushmore).

Similarly he keeps some Anne Rice novels on his bookshelf that someone gave him as a gift, but he makes a very specific point of saying several times that he hasn't read them. Why not, Jacques? They may not be Heidegger but could it hurt to see what's inside them? For someone who professes to critique modern culture he seems to want as little to do with it as possible.

If Derrida were willing to at least answer the questions the filmmakers pose then the film would at least serve as a lecture in a box. Instead he plays a game of evasion via pop-psychology. Offered almost any question, he begins to answer but then cuts himself off. He then launches into an endless qualifier about how it's not a real question and how the subject matter is an illusion and must be understood through the perspective of some other philosopher with whom Derrida doesn't fully agree but respects, etc... After a few minutes of these sorts of tangents the filmmakers, either satisfied or bored, cut to the next scene. Very few questions are actually ever answered. Not that the answers would matter anyway, but it's just annoying.

It's possible that the film couldn't have gone any more in depth than it does thanks to the subject. If that's the case, then did it really need to be made? It doesn't give any real insight into Derrida for the philosophy novice and it won't be as meaningful to the student as the original texts. This movie probably functions best as a keepsake for the Derrida fan, like some of the young women in the film who flock to the philosopher after a lecture. (I wonder where autographing DVD covers fits into Derrida's theories?) It's weird to see such star-crossed groupie-like behavior in this context, but Derrida, I guess, is the rock star of the post-grad set. If the filmmakers hope to reach out to a wider audience, however, I don't think they succeeded.

The full-screen video is acceptable. It's shot on video and doesn't exhibit any terrible flaws. It's not terribly interesting, however, and has the look of a home video.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is fine. Some of the interview footage is recorded in less than optimal conditions, so voices are sometimes muffled. Mostly it's clear, however. Derrida switches between French and English frequently and the film features English subtitles for all the French speech. There are also optional English subtitles for the rest. Modern composer Ryuichi Sakamoto's score is fine, although not as interesting and textured as some of his other work.

The extras section contains about an hour of additional interviews. They're same basic style as the interviews in the film, so if you liked those you'll love these. At one point Derrida expounds on how this film will outlive him. Unlikely. Beside, why would a man who has published as many essays as Derrida consider some surface-dwelling documentary as the thing that will carry his ideas to future generations? Doesn't make sense.

There's also a commentary track from the filmmakers that's not really that interesting. They discuss how nice Derrida is in person, making coffee to for the crew.

There is a Q&A session featuring the filmmakers and Derrida at a screening of the film. It's funny to watch the man twist around trying to compliment the film without complimenting himself or sounding like it really tickles his ego. He playfully calls himself a narcissist but can barely hide his discomfort with the idea of being in a movie in the first place.

Finally, there is a series of outtakes. This is a very good collection of extras for someone who enjoyed the film. They're basically more of the same for anyone who didn't.

Derrida is a curious failure: It's obviously made by intelligent people about an intelligent subject. And the filmmakers are aware of the difficult nature of making a visual document out of such intellectual concepts. But the finished product doesn't work. As a viewer I didn't feel like I had any better a grasp on the man himself or his ideas. For a concept so dense with thought, the film ultimately is empty.

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