Examined Life

Layout 1(dir. Astra Taylor | Canada | 2008 | 87 min.)

Review by Hugh Lilly

It is a rare thing that a film rooted in academia can both inform and entertain its audience. Astra Taylor, a Canadian filmmaker, whose début feature was a study of the heavily-accented Slovenian psychoanalyst and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, returns with a film that presents a wider picture of modern thinking, interviewing eight philosophers about their areas of expertise. The film’s tagline is “Philosophy is in the streets,” and this is reflected in the unusual way Taylor presents her interviewees; they walk around the streets of metropolises talking directly to the camera—a world away from the cloistered environment of academia. The film takes its title from Socrates’ famous line in Plato’s Apology, “the life which is unexamined is not worth living”.

Each philosopher gets about ten minutes of screen time, and the film opens and closes with segments featuring the existentialist Cornel West, probably the best known of the film’s subjects. The existentialist philosopher, with his slightly-greying afro bouncing around, leans forward from the back of a car in rush hour New York traffic, preaching about the futility of life and explains how blues music influences his work.

NYU professor Avital Ronell is perhaps the most self-absorbed and pretentious speaker. Suspicious “historically and intellectually of the promise of meaning” in philosophy, she walks around Central Park critically debating little more than the film itself and Taylor’s expectations of her subjects. The Australian applied ethics expert Peter Singer ponders the morality of consumerism and the ethics of affluence on Fifth Avenue, one of the world’s most expensive shopping districts. Set to the bustling rhythms of midday Manhattan streets—and cut to the swirling sounds of the blind jazz composer Moondog—this segment is among the film’s most entertaining.

There is a recurring question in Taylor’s collected conversations: “Is philosophy a search for meaning?” This is never quite answered—not that it could be in such a limited time frame. Instead, each interviewee has free reign on their ten minutes at the podium. This leads to interesting commentary that probably would not have emerged had the speakers been limited to specific topics. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Ghanaian/British thinker on cosmopolitanism, discusses the complexities of modern life. With globalisation, he argues, “travelling through an airport, you pass more people in a few minutes than our most remote human ancestors would have seen in their entire lives.”

Martha Nussbaum discusses social justice, welfare and disabilities while strolling along a lakefront walkway. Taylor then changes location entirely, switching to Slavoj Žižek in a garbage dump, discussing a new approach to ecology. Žižek, who is always enjoyable—his film The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema was massively entertaining—argues that humans should “move away from trying to find our roots in nature,” and instead focus on becoming more alienated from the earth; more artificial. The sci-fi aspect of his comments segues nicely into a segment on the limits of the body with the post-structuralist feminist Judith Butler in San Francisco.

Butler is joined by the director’s sister, Sunaura Taylor, an activist for disability rights. Taylor, who is herself disabled, said she moved to San Francisco from Brooklyn because it is a more accessible city than New York. She and Butler discuss stigmas attached to disability, and the extent to which the disabled are dependent upon others. They also discuss the body and its functions, and the question of where the body ends and artifice takes over, which links both to Žižek’s comments on ecology and Nussbaum’s thoughts about human capabilities.

Examined Life is an unconventional ‘talking heads-type documentary that is engrossing despite its brevity. It removes philosophy from its stigmatised ivory tower and makes it accessible—although, thankfully, it never dumbs down its subject or strays into pop philosophy; Taylor’s film retains the intellectual feel of a piece of academic writing while at the same time conveying ideas and thoughts in an easily-understood manner.

Examined Life screens at the upcoming New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland on July 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th at various times.

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