Examined Life (2009, dir. Astra Taylor)
Featuring Judith Butler, Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avitall Ronell, Peter Singer, Sunaura Taylor
Fans of Michael Bay’s work will no doubt be rushing out to see this one. That was sarcasm. Canadian-American filmmaker Astra Taylor has assembled 8 philosophers and given them ten minutes a piece to muse on some aspect of existence. This could have been pretentious drivel, but Taylor is able to make herself the subject of the film early on in an effort to point out that such an endeavor is imperfect and we should simply sit back and enjoy the mistake. While walking through a park with NYU literature professor Avital Ronell, the subject becomes the interviewer, asking Taylor what the goal of all this is. Taylor responds that philosophy is such an oral exercise, yet it is communicated primarily in printed words, where there is time and space for it to be stretched out and examined. Taylor states she wanted to see if something similar might be accomplished on film, where the philosophers can speak.
The three standouts for me were Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek, and Cornel West. Cornel West has had vast experience as a media personality so he has the charisma and verbage to make what could have been a dry seminar into a witty musing on the nature of democracy and authority. Judith Butler is also very interesting, with her segment involving a discussion between Taylor sister, Sunastra, who is a painter and disability advocate. Their talk hinges on the idea of “going for a walk”, and what that means for a wheelchair bound person such as Sunastra. This evolves into the nature of being disabled in a contemporary context and then to an exploration of what the manner in which people walk tells us, and how human behavior is regulated by social expectations.
The best was Slavok Zizjek, a Croatian philosopher whose A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is a great documentary introduction to film criticism. Zizek delivers his dialogue from a landfill somewhere in New York. He talks about the conflict between humanity and nature, and the trend in some groups to desire a “return to nature”. His argument against this is that Nature is simply an ongoing series of violent biological interactions. He cites oil being such a large part of contemporary life, and how we never contemplate the sheer level of violence that had to occur to destroy so much living matter to produce the oil in the earth. The conclusion of this talk is that it is in humanity’s best interest to create further and further artificial environments that it can control, and that this will involve a redefining of beauty from a pastoral standard to one in which hills of garbage can be found to have a pleasing aesthetic.
The documentary is obviously not for someone needing an escapist film, yet it is not a film for someone who has attained a degree in philosophy. I found it fairly apparent that Taylor is trying to reach out to the contemporary individual who has an interest in continuing their education and not moving through life drone-like. The film is full of idea candy, some interesting questions to contemplate and savor after seeing the picture.