Friday, April 24, 2009

Examined Life (Rhoades)

“Examined Life” Is Philosophy 101

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Recently the Tropic Cinema showed “The Perverts’ Guide to Cinema,” an egghead’s look at the meanings behind movies as told by a Slovenian movie buff named Slavoj Zizek. Known for his showy personality, Zizek is also a respected philosopher and psychoanalyst.

In fact, a young Canadian-American filmmaker named Astra Taylor did a documentary about him that was immodestly titled “Zizek!” – exclamation point included.

Now Ms. Taylor comes back for another roll of the philosopher’s stone, delivering a second documentary that again features Zizek – along with seven other contemporary philosophers. “Examined Life” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

The film’s title comes from Plato, who observed in line 38A of his Apology that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Yet, this documentary offers an approach to philosophy that’s more in keeping with Aristotle, a philosopher who liked to walk around while lecturing.

With the tagline “Philosophy is in the streets,” Ms. Taylor and her camera crew follow their subjects along city streets, through parks, and into the gleaming interior of an international airport. They often break the fourth wall, interacting with their subject, shown packing their cameras and sound equipment like a modern-day archaeological expedition.

This documentary is much like taking a stroll with your favorite professor, listening to his or her monologue, enjoying a classroom lecture outside the classroom. Peter Singer walks down Fifth Avenue, admiring expensive shoes in the window of Bergdorf Goodman, while discussing the ethics of consumerism. Judith Butler explores a San Francisco second-hand clothing store with a wheelchair-bound friend, talking about accessibility and gender issues.

Unfortunately, these eight philosophers – Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Zizek – don’t explore much new territory, seemingly content at “summarizing some of their main ideas or repeating riffs they’ve done before…”

It would’ve seemed best to evaluate “Examined Life” as a whole, but these diverse philosophical soliloquies don’t lend themselves to a thematic interpretation. The film is more like a Whitman’s
Sampler of current philosophical thinking.

Thus we’re left to pick at individual personalities. Noting Avital Ronell’s narcissistic arrogance, Cornell West’s “dazzling high culture jive talk,” or Zizek’s fidgety pronouncements that are obviously designed to provoke.

As Avital Ronell says early in the film, “We don’t know where this film is going to land, whom it’s going to shake up, wake up, or freak out, or bore…”

“Examined Life” doesn’t really examine life as much as it examines philosophy.
[from Solares Hill]

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