Consumed? Peter Singer philosophizes from the streets of New York City in Astra Taylor's "Examined Life," opening on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki. (Photo courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

'Examined Life' Puts Ideas into Action

Dennis Harvey March 6, 2009

There have been a fair number of films and filmmakers considered to have a philosophical bent—Ingmar Bergman, to cite one of the more obvious examples. But movies have rarely addressed philosophy itself head-on. It makes sense: Really, how much can you do cinematically with an area that must basically come down to people talking about abstract concepts?

Which is exactly what Astra Taylor’s Examined Life consists of. The surprise is how engaging this documentary sampler of nine leading contemporary theorists emerges. Not just because the personalities and ideas are stimulating, but because Taylor (who previously directed another philosophy doc, 2005’s Zizek!) has the very bright idea of interviewing her subjects on the move, in settings that one way or another in real world terms illustrate (or contrast with) the concepts they discuss.

[Editor’s note: Director Astra Taylor and subject Sunaura Taylor appear in person at the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas on Friday, March 6, and Sunday, March 8. More at SFFS.]

Wrenching the academics from academia to (often literally) strut their stuff in public spaces, the film wryly lets us see how such ivory tower thinking still connects to everyday life. Except when it doesn’t.

Thus Cornel West, used as a sort of running thread throughout (everyone else gets just a roughly ten-minute segment to themselves), takes a long cab ride through some of Manhattan’s storied locations as he exalts the pure pleasure as well as depth of self-knowledge in living a life of the mind. He calls himself "a jazzman in the world of ideas," and this virtuoso verbal solo improv certainly supports that notion.

S.F.’s own lauded queer theorist Judith Butler strolls with disabled rights activist Sunaura Taylor (Astra’s sister) down that all-murals Mission District alley while discussing body and gender issues. Ghanaian American cosmopolitanist Kwame Anthony Appiah, somewhat controversial for his critiques of Afrocentricism, explores cross-cultural tolerance and globalization in a setting that exemplifies bland border-blurring: A massive Canadian airport. Best known as the animal rights movement’s "godfather," Peter Singer talks about wealth and its moral obligations as he passes by Fifth Avenue’s temples of luxury consumerism.

Anti-corporate guru Michael Hardt muses upon the relevancy of that oft-cited, oft-dismissed concept, revolution, to curing global inequities. As, somewhat incongruously, he rows himself and the filmmaker across an idyllic Central Park lake. Taylor doesn’t use that kind of occasional irony to ridicule her interviewees, but rather to underline her own not-infrequently on-camera viewpoint as the audience’s stand-in, constantly reining the conversation back to practical concerns any layperson might have.

There is a bit of humorous subversion in her placing hyperprolific, so-called "Elvis of cultural theory" Slavoj Zizek amidst a London garbage dump as he drops some typically bizarre ideas about ecology and humanity. Postmodernist, feminist, Derrida translator and Stupidity/Idiocy author Avital Ronell requires no special staging to undermine herself: Attempting to turn the tables on Taylor by interviewing the interviewer during a Washington Square Park (NYC’s) walk, she comes off as alternately bullying, droll and imperious, her ideas drastically disconnected from the ordinary existences all around her.

It’s maybe inevitable that a documentary encompassing so many diverse thinker and so much complex discourse in under 90 minutes should finally seem a bit of an appetizer that leaves you desiring the full meal. But rousing such hunger for contemplation and argument in a medium more typically given over to scatological humor and exploding stuff—things that actively resist any afterthought—is a considerable achievement in itself.

Examined Life
is, among other things, a great first-date movie. It’s entertaining, you’ll look smart to have suggested it, and it will leave you with no end of things to talk about afterward.