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Examined Life

Zeitgeist Films // 2009 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // February 11th, 2010

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The Charge

Philosophy is in the streets.

The Case

When Socrates said, in Plato's Apology, "The unexamined life is not worth living," he was not just referring to academics and those with the leisure time to sit and think. It was important to him that everybody stay aware, ask questions, and examine themselves. That was thousands of years ago, however, and the average person doesn't sit down to read philosophy, let alone write some themselves. Once, a classical education was a normal practice, and the study of philosophy was a fundamental part of that. Like conjugating Latin verbs, schools no longer teach the work of Hegel or Kierkegaard. Now, virtually all work done in the field comes from the Academy and, for many, that's an ivory tower filled with navel-gazing intellectuals. That isn't all that philosophy can be. It exists in the art we look and the conversations we engage in; anywhere, really, if we want to look for it.

In Examined Life, director Astra Taylor (Zizek!) makes a strong attempt at bringing philosophy out of the tower and into the real world. The film tries admirably, but some lingering questions involving the subjects prevent the film from achieving total success. She takes her idea of philosophy on the streets seriously, with a series of on-the-street interviews with modern philosophers, writers, or whatever you want to call them. Each has about ten minutes to discuss a particular subject (no small feat for some of them), though Cornel West's segment is given a little more time, but is broken up. These serve as bookends and an intermission in the middle of the main program. In order of appearance:

Cornel West, Part 1, "Examining Yourself": West's engaging manner and accessibility make him a good introduction to the film. West and Taylor drive through New York while he talks about the value of philosophy and self-examination in real life, using blues and jazz as comparisons. He eliminates much of the jargon that makes people's eyes glaze over, and in realistic terms, discusses the importance of philosophy in everyday life. He is excellent at easing us into the world of philosophy before the often more rigorous, less engaging discussions to come.

Avital Ronell, "Paths That Lead Nowhere": From the Derrida deconstruction school, Ronell discusses the folly in the search for absolute meaning while strolling through Central Park. Hard and fast certainty about subjective issues like spirituality and esthetics can lead people down a fascistic path.

Peter Singer, "The Shallow Pond": The often controversial philosopher discusses his applied ethics theories regarding finance, filmed on an ironic walk down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. He delivers his theory via fable after a spark of inspiration from a Dolce & Gabbana advertisement.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, "The Cosmopolitan": In the Toronto airport, the Princeton Professor of Philosophy uses his own life experience to speak on cosmopolitanism in the globalized world. With a Ghanaian father and a British mother, Appiah discusses how different world views that strive for the same end are equally valid. This seems like a simple concept until you think about things like Holy Wars.

Cornel West, Part 2, "Truth as a Way of Life": West continues, now focusing on the search for truth. Not in the sense of actual facts, but a personal truth that comes from examination and the life of the mind.

Michael Hardt, "Becoming Capable of Democracy": In another ironic locale, Hardt rows a boat around a pond surrounded by skyscrapers while speculating on the current possibility of actual revolution. Because revolution often transitions power from one ruling elite to another, hopefully better, ruling elite, no real change can happen. The idea of a fundamental change in human thought to enable an idealized Socialist state is impossible.

Slavoj Zizek, "Ecology as Ideology": The explosive Zizek wanders through a garbage dump while discussing modern ecology and the impending danger of it becoming the new "opiate for the masses," in Marxist terms. Zizek is sure to rub people the wrong way, but he makes an excellent point about the paradox of striving to prevent something (climate change, for instance), when we cannot fathom a world in which that takes place.

Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor, "What Can a Body Do?": The lone dialog in the film features noted feminist/queer theory writer Judith Butler with painter and activist Sunaura Taylor, who is also the director's sister. Their conversation focuses on the expectations society places on the function of the body and societal reaction when those expectations aren't met. Taylor was born with Arthrogryposis and is confined to a wheelchair, and this is a palpable idea for her with everything she does in public. The two equate gender, sexual, and disability discrimination with high intellectual rigor, but are still friendly enough as they wander San Francisco's Mission District to go look at sweaters.

Cornel West, Part 3, "Rejecting Romanticism": To finish off, West discusses the importance of not idealizing the world. It is important to keep from trying to attain real harmony, or wholeness. These things are not attainable, and the supposition of such wholeness is dangerous.

In their disparate subjects, a lot of these segments still make clear the danger of ascribing absolute right and wrong to their work, and to the world in general. Indeed, it doesn't matter if any of these people are "correct" in their views. Has any philosopher ever been factually correct? Of course not, they work from theories and precepts they come up with and develop a logical argument from that. Philosophy isn't a science, which demands direct proof (though that proof often stems from a scientist's own assumptions). The thinking and the dialog are more important. The pitfall, I suppose, is that where people are free to think and speak, others are equally free to believe them. This can lead to some most disturbing ideas, such as eugenics and fascism.

That sad thought aside, Zeitgeist's presentation of Examined Life is solid all around. The strong anamorphic image transfer features bright color and good detail. The stereo sound does exactly what it needs to do. Because this is nothing more than individuals speaking, not much is required. For extras, we get two extra "walks," with British philosophers Colin McGinn and Simon Critchley, and some festival interviews with West, Ronell, Appiah, and the director.

Examined Life is a comforting film for me. Having gone to a Liberal Arts college in New Mexico for just such a classical education, I was steeped in philosophy for four years. In the real world (where this school absolutely does not exist), there's not much occasion to talk metaphysics with somebody. To hear these people speak was nice; the film got me thinking in ways I haven't thought in some time. The same reason I found it comforting, however, makes me wonder about the film's audience. I'm no stranger to a lot of the speakers' terms, and the old usages of terms like ideology, but not everybody is. Cornel West is excellent at bringing philosophy to the streets, but most of these thinkers seem lost in their own heads, as present in the real world as they are. It's not going to turn every mechanic into a philosopher, but it will hopefully turn some people on to concepts that may never have occurred to them. Otherwise, this film has limited appeal beyond the exact place she wants to pull philosophy from: the academic community.

The Verdict

I think, therefore this is not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• Featurette


• IMDb

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