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Feb 05 2003 | Wesley Morris

`DERRIDA' AN AMUSING PORTRAIT OF THE MASTER OF DECONSTRUCTION

In the right academic circles, France's Jacques Derrida is the Mick Jagger of cultural philosophy. He opens his mouth, and the girls go nuts. Years ago, for his Yale lecture series, he even had groupies - adoring flocks of young women who hogged the front rows and were called the Derridettes. With Derrida, now 72, it's easy to understand the appeal to grad students. He has an iconoclastic idea of identity, and he conceived a complex critical philosophy known as deconstruction, which essentially negates an author's intention and opens his work to every and any interpretation.

Plus, he's still sort of a looker, with his ruddy tan and white hair that often needs a professional taming. Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman let us see this in their amusing and curious docu-profile, "Derrida." The film is an attempt to extract the regular guy lurking in the celebrity who lurks on the pages of his conundrums. So when we meet Derrida, he's zipping around his home, a little spaced out, trying to remember his keys before he hits the hair salon. "Derrida" chooses an informal introduction, probably just because it can. Most of the critical-philosophical greats - Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Levinas, Ferdinand de Saussure, Hegel - are gone. And so while we may not have someone like Walter Benjamin on film showing us how he spent a day off, now we have Derrida trying to approximate the experience.

Conversant in English and French, Derrida lets himself be trailed on the university lecture and panel circuit and at home. We see him elucidate some of his views, but just when you think you've gotten the hang of his thinking, the film breaks into ponderous slow motion, and a feminine voice recites an excerpt from his hits, such as "Archive Fever" and "The Other." It's an effect that should clear up how a Jacques Derrida Paxil ad would go.

Nonetheless, the intellectual grasp of Kofman and Dick (who made the smart but grueling documentary "Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist") is strong enough to let the filmmakers play up the irony in trying to film him. During most of the one-on-one interviews, Derrida can be counted on to challenge a movie's inherent affront to naturalism. He insists, at one point, that he'd be totally different were he not being filmed. So the crew, respectfully, parks outside his glass fortress and, from the yard, watches him file papers.

The problem with the film is that it's too respectful. It's as if half the battle were getting Derrida to consent. You could flunk a test with all of Derrida's work we get around to - the difference between the word "difference" and his loaded appropriation "differance," for example. What results is a portrait as flattering and selectively candid as a home movie - albeit an entertaining one.

"Derrida" even tries to get in line with Derrida's suspicion of the fixity of biography by skipping an exploration of his personal history and focusing on his present actions until the film eventually gathers meaning. I don't think it's an accident that a lighting reflector that needs adjustment interrupts a rare reflective moment. Kofman and Dick's notion of reflection is purely . . . reflexive, as when Derrida is shown watching film of himself watching the tape on which he watches an interview. On some level, this movie is about how its own production squares with its subject's idea of himself: unknowable.

Still, there's something touching about a movie willing to show Derrida being tortured by a British journalist who suspects that "Seinfeld" is a deconstructionist work. "Deconstruction, as I understand it, does not produce any sitcoms," he scoffs. "Do your homework and read." He's right. She should have asked about "Joe Millionaire."

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