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‘Do Derrida To Derrida’

I cannot pretend to fully understand the concept of deconstruction, but I want to point out that that is not a prerequisite to enjoy the documentary Derrida, by filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Zierling Kofman.

Jacques Derrida, in a still from the film

I find it a surprisingly warm look at 20th century French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It goes a long way towards bringing him down to earth for those of us who find his theories intellectually intimidating. But make no mistake about it–the filmmakers expect you to put some work into this. You need to think.

Not surprisingly, when you consider the subject, this film is as much about the nature of biography as it is about the man at the centre of this particular one. This sort of self-reflexivity has always interested me in art, and there are times while watching the film when I am unsure where the “line” between documentary and art lies–in fact, in this case, the so-called “line” may be as fine and as gradual as the extraordinary minute-long dissolve we see between a couple of sequences. The filmmakers—and their subject—are continually questioning the biographic process and the author’s role in it (I mean, is it really possible for the author of a biography to present an objective—ie. “truthful”—look at his/her subject, or is it not always informed by the author’s point of view?).

For extremely personal reasons, I find Derrida’s discussion of “love” most interesting… He distinguishes between the “who” and the “what” in a way that makes me wonder what it is that confounds my heart. I mean (and, sadly, I am speaking only hypothetically at this moment), is it the individual characteristics that my lover possesses that I love or is it the unique way that these characteristics have combined that makes me love him? That is, is it, for example, the way he tilts his head when listening to me or the sound of gravel in his voice when he first wakes in the morning or the way he can make me laugh—ie. the “what”–that I love? Or is it the way all these qualities have combined to make him a singular entity—ie. the “who”— that I love? I am quite taken with this argument.

I found an insightful article about the film here. It puts to shame anything I could think of to write about it, and so I heartily recommend it.

(Incidentally, it wasn’t until I was listening to the directors’ commentary on the dvd that I realized that I’d seen another film by Kirby Dick–Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist–which is a fascinating (if unsettling) look at Bob Flanagan, an artist who suffered from cystic fibrosis and who chose to usurp the disease’s power over him by resorting to BDSM. Kind of a cool little film, if you’re not too squeamish about that sorta thing…)

Thanks to my friend Peter for making me want to go back and think more critically about film than I have in a long time. See, he asked to read a couple essays I wrote back in what I refer to as my “callow youth”—when I was a film student at Innis College at U of T—and when I was re-typing them in Word (for you young ‘uns, this is because they were originally written on paper with an electric typewriter back in those hoary pre-PC days of the mid-80s), I was a little amazed at what I once (apparently) understood! 

Does this make me a film snob, Pete?

Granted, I do have Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and The Wolfman in my ZipList (one of the holdovers from my former Netflix queue) and the upcoming release I’m most looking forward to is Nacho Libre, but I can really look at film seriously from time to time, too! Yes, really.

→ originally published 2006-06-10

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