Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Astra Taylor's EXAMINED LIFE opens at the IFC Center

EXAMINED LIFE examines life. Pretty inclusive topic, that, yet Astra Taylor's elegant (those classy "embossed" credits!) and witty compilation of the ideas of various present-day philosophers manages this better than you might imagine. And in just 88 minutes (including credits). It is highly unusual to have one's brain engaged so thoroughly by any movie, but here you must consistently use all your powers of

concentration, as Taylor, right, takes you into the mind and ideas of nine of the world's leading philosophers. Of course, you could read their works separately (and may want to do so after seeing this film), but by gathering them together, the filmmaker allows us to listen to such a breadth of ideas and subjects that we are able to make a number of interesting connections we might not otherwise have managed.

Beginning -- and ending, too -- with Cornell West (above), who brings history, music and color to the fore, Taylor moves to a stroll in what looks like Madison Square Park with Avital Ronell (right), whose ideas of deconstruction seem to quietly contradict, or at least call into question, much of what West has just said.

A walk and a talk is evidently what Taylor wants from each of her men and women. So Peter Singer (above) takes us to the glitzy Las Vegas-looking Times Square and the chic shops that dot Fifth Avenue to prod us into thinking about the morality of our consumption.

New to me and perhaps now my favorite of Taylor's bunch is Kwame Anthony Appiah (shown left), London-born of a Ghanian father, whose humane words and ideas fall gracefully and thoughtfully as he and Taylor move from one part of an airport to another.
On her particular walk, Martha Nussbaum (right) talks about the Social Contract, its applications (or lack of them) in western society. This is a subject I'm rather keen on, having just spent some time thinking and writing about this, in terms of Italian film and the current "mob" movie Gomorrah.

Philosopher Michael Hardt would evidently rather row than walk, and so we spend our time with him and Taylor in a rowboat on the Central Park lake, as he talks sensibly and encompassingly of revolution and responsibility.
Slavoj Zizek, for a change, is not interested in movies. No: He meets us in a garbage recycling center, a place he claims is perfect for our current time, and then proceeds to explain exactly why.

Our final philosophers make a charming couple, as they walk/ride us around San Francisco and even do a little shopping in a thrift shop. Disabled due to pollution by the U.S. military, Sunaura Taylor wheelchairs it about with Judith Butler, below right, as the two of them talk about everything from the words "handicapped" and "disabled" to queer theory and what it means to ask for help.

Examined Life has proven one of my most enjoyable movie experiences in a long time -- as well as one of the most surprising. I left the screening in a revved-up state, my mind racing about, trying to connect and then store all that I had heard and seen. It took awhile to come back to normal, and now, of course, two weeks after the screening, I have lost a good deal of what I gained. (I should probably purchase the DVD, once it's available, and watch it weekly.) Taylor's film actually made me feel more positive about our world situation -- which I found odd, considering the state we're in. Yet hearing these nine philosophers speak so intelligently and insightfully about humanity proved a peculiarly bracing experience that compares to little else I've encountered in a documentary.

Astra Taylor's EXAMINED LIFE, distributed via the small-but-wonderful Zeitgeist Films, opens Wednesday, February 25, at NYC's IFC Center. It's a "don't miss" for moviegoers who welcome a little thinking with their visuals and who care about where the world is headed and how we might alter that direction.


perri said...

Thanks for posting about this. I missed the opportunity to see it. I wish it would come out on DVD already. :-)

James van Maanen, said...

Hi, Perri -- and thanks for the comment. I have no idea when the DVD of EXAMINED LIFE will be available but I'll contact its distributor on Monday and try to find out. Watch this space for further news....

James van Maanen, said...

After checking with Zeitgeist Films, Perri, it seems that the movie will reach DVD in early 2010. I know that's a long time to have to wait, but meanwhile, the film is having good success showing on various college and university campuses around the country. Check with your local schools to see if maybe it will be appearing there this fall.

Anonymous said...

Curious about if the film will be on Cable (IFC, Sundance, HBO etc) in the nearer future?

James van Maanen, said...

Hi, Anon--
I can't imagine that a film this unusual and good will not be on cable somewhere/sometime, eventually. But first, I suspect, will come that DVD -- which should arrive by early spring. So far I have not seen EXAMINED LIFE listed on any of the cable channels you mention.

Geoff said...


I'm using Examined Life for my philosophy elective tomorrow and Tuesday to wrap up the end of the trimester. I've enjoyed it so far and I hope that my students (high school seniors and juniors) do as well. The main reason I'm showing them this movie is by sheer fact that a movie like this exists and is relatively accessible. Second, one of my students asked me about halfway through the course, "are there any living philosophers?"

Hmm.... note to self for next year: use modern philosophers too when using modern examples. I'll let you know how it goes.

James van Maanen, said...

I'm happy to hear this news Geoff (even though I didn't know you till now). I imagine that Zeitgeist (the distributor) and Astra Taylor (the filmmaker) will be happy to hear it, too. Please do let us know how things go with your students. Hard to imagine that they won't find the film at least somewhat interesting, while being pleased that these particular philosophers are alive and kicking.

A thought: Ask them, post-screening, who among these was their favorite -- and why. Bet you get some interesting answers.