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Examined Life
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Examined Life More at IMDbPro »

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21 out of 22 people found the following review useful:

Talking, walking, and thinking at the same time. Is it possible?

Author: Chris Knipp from Berkeley, California
19 March 2009

'Examined Life' introduces what may be a whole new sub-genre: the philosophical chat documentary. The title's an obvious allusion to Socrates' famous statement, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' The film's eight philosophers are peripatetic, though Taylor doesn't claim this alludes to Aristotle, who, they say, walked around while lecturing. The philosopher of running, Dr. George Sheehan, liked to quote Thoreau: "Trust no thought arrived at sitting down." If that's true, maybe we'll have to distrust two of the speakers, because one is in a car and another is rowing a boat on a lake.

It's good if you can lure the public to watch a documentary film that provides a taste of what philosophical thinking is like. Unfortunately the talkers, Cornel West, Avita Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, and Savoj Zizek, aren't really making philosophy as they go along, the way Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore did, as well as their followers A.J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle. Instead, they're just summarizing some of their main ideas or repeating riffs they've done before or answering questions from Taylor as they're being filmed walking, rowing, riding, or, in the case Zizek, fidgeting around in front of some piles of rubbish at a London dump. (Taylor previously made a film about the showy, provocative Slovenian.)

While each of us asks about the meaning of life at some point or another, it's not a sure thing that philosophy is of any use, even to itself, in answering that question. Wittgenstein famously said that of what matters most to us we can say nothing. After a pungent name-dropping riff by West sitting in the back of Taylor's car, Ronell, a "deconstructionist," begins her sequence, pacing a Central Park sidewalk, with a strong dose of skepticism, not to say metaphysical and moral angst. "If you have a good conscience, then you're worthless," she opines. Disdainfully asserting that though ten minutes to speak may be fine for the others, it's ridiculous for herself, she haughtily makes a point of distinguishing between philosophy and thinking. So there's some question whether anything said by these eight people is of any use, or whether presenting them sequentially (with Cornell West injected at three points as a sort of unifying voice) makes any logical sense. But it does, because philosophers do get back to basics, and all of them are talking in one way or another about how to live.

In his 'Village Voice' review of 'Examined Life' J. Hoberman falls into the inevitable trap of rating the speakers one by one. He finds Singer smug and obvious and says his "neo-Kantian platitude" about "commitment to the common good" "stops the conversation" and illustrates that distinction between philosophy and thinking. Actually Singer's stroll down Fifth Avenue while advocating vegetarianism and suggesting it's better to donate a thousand dollars to charity than to spend it on an elegant suit seemed effective and thought-provoking to me; and Singer had the best command of everyday, unpretentious language.

Singer's position coheres with those of Nussbaum and Butler, both of whom speak of the need to act democratically. The image of a Bushian un-compassionate conservatism hovers behind their assertion of our collective obligation to provide for and protect those who are different, or poor, or handicapped. Nussbaum points out that everyone is "handicapped" in infancy and old age, so the need for help is universal. Butler explores a San Francisco second-hand clothing store with a wheelchair-bound friend, Sunaura Taylor, discussing accessibility and gender issues. All of this adds up to the need for a more liberal and humane society. Appiah adds another consideration: culture. As he walks through the international wing of a airport, en route to somewhere, he talks about growing up in a shack and having a Ghanan mother and English father and describes cosmopolitanism--and distinguishes it from cultural relativity. It's important to realize that people can live well (be good), he says, while following different values.

One may be a cosmopolite like Appiah, but it may be better to stay at home. So you might conclude from the words of Michael Hardt, co-author of the book 'Empire.' In his youth he and others went to Latin America to engage in revolution, but they were advised to go back and make their revolution here. As he rows around the lake and runs aground looking at big turtles, he may seem ineffectual. There is the danger in this medium of peppy visuals and extended sound bites that these important thinkers and writers may wind up over-simplifying or parodying themselves.

Zizek, like Jean Baudrillard, delivers provocative pronouncements that seem to defy common sense. It may simply be that while he can devastate you in the sound bites, with a kind of hit-and-run effect, he can't ever be properly understood in such small chunks. His primary point this time is that "shit" doesn't go away as we imagine, when we flush. We need to as it were "embrace" our mountains of waste, forget about living in nature, and accept being more artificial. But since he acknowledges that global warming is a real problem, why does he insist that "ecology" is the comforting new orthodoxy, like "religion" to Marx? What are we to do with this information, if it be true?

And it's hard to see what to do with Cornell West's dazzling high culture jive talk about history, jazz, blues, slavery, courage, and much else. The thing about West is that, like Zizek, you may come away only with questions, but you may also, especially if you're young, come away thinking you want to be able to talk like that and think like that and have all that stuff in your head. Somewhere out of this you may get the urge to think or act in new ways. And in that sense this philosophers' sampler will have justified its existence.

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10 out of 11 people found the following review useful:

Out Of The Musty Studies & Into The Streets

Author: druid333-2 from United States
29 May 2009

If one were to strike up a conversation with any student of philosophy or pseudo intellectual,within the confines of their study or library, they would have truck loads of source materials to quote by. Take them out of these confines and you have the basis for this stunning documentary, 'Examined Life'. Astra Taylor,who previously turned her independent lens on Slovenian philosophical wizard,Slavoj Zizek, trains her camera on several talking heads to ruminate on life,love,the environment,etc. What makes this documentary all the more interesting is the settings for these intellectuals to talk their talk (and walk the walk,or row a boat,or whatever). The likes of Judith Butler,Martha Nussbaum,Cornell West,and yes....Slavoj Zizek,himself turn up to give their views on whatever crosses their minds (and paths). This is obviously a film that will be of extreme interest to some,and a crashing bore to others (I counted a few walk out's during the screening that I attended). One of the most interesting segments that stuck with me long after exiting the cinema was a discussion between gender theorist,Judith Butler & the director's sister,Sunaura Taylor,who requires a motorized wheelchair, due to a disability,waxes philosophical on the prejudices of the handicapped & the gay,lesbian,bi-sexual & trans-gendered community. 'Examined Life' is not a film that will be everybody's cup of tea,but those with an open mind & a sense of adventure may just get their groove on with it (and even learn something in the end). Not rated by the MPAA,this film does serve up a few rude words,but contains nothing else to offend.

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7 out of 8 people found the following review useful:

I felt engaged in the dialog

Author: John Johnson from United States
3 June 2009

I really like the concept of this film: take philosophy off the page and put it back in the mouth of philosophers. Although each thinker only gets ten minutes, it is a great summary of their work. Visually it is interesting, as the director puts each philosopher in a different setting: walking in a park, rowing a boat, riding in the back of a cab, etc. (I don't understand the other reviewer who didn't like the cinematography.) Zizek, of course, was filmed amidst mounds of modern garbage.

When you have to read these guys in school, you are treated the way I suppose a young Talmudic student is, who has to accept the great thought or go to hell.* But listening to them here, seeing their personality, their vulnerability and their quirks, it stimulated me greatly, and made me feel I could enter the conversation.

This movie helps democratize philosophy, and I think there will be a lot more: digital cameras are so abundant and my guess is philosophers are like poets, they work for cheap. Thanks for reading.

*(you can, in school, of course, challenge the ideas, but it is much much much easier to go along with the program.)

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3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:

Deep Thinking on Film

Author: gavin6942 from United States
24 July 2011

In "Examined Life", filmmaker Astra Taylor accompanies some of today's most influential thinkers on a series of unique excursions through places and spaces that hold particular resonance for them and their ideas.

As a former philosophy major (and current part-time philosopher), this documentary grabbed me by the throat and pulled me in. Philosophy is "a critical disposition of wrestling with desire in the face of death," according to Cornel West, who identifies himself as a pleasure-loving Christian. (West spends much of his time rambling about things that seem to have little connection to each other... all while being driven across town by the director.)

Avital Ronell, whom I never heard of, comes across as completely bizarre. She is both full of herself, yet approachable and almost humorous. "I am very suspicious intellectually and historically of the idea of meaning," she says, saying that meaning has tended to be in the hands of the powerful. The "craving for meaning" is "devastating". Ronell is very verbose, and throws around Greek words and Heidegger casually, which will not make her welcome for most viewers (and may lead to people turning the film off early).

Peter Singer, someone I admit to being a big fan of, presents his argument that there is a moral obligation for the rich to assist the poor. In the global sense, Americans should help the third world. (This is a socialist view, though Singer himself does not label it as "socialist", which is smart on his part.) He also talks of his conversion to veganism and the idea that eating meat is not justified (a concept I am sympathetic with, but not in agreement with). Those who know Singer's work will find no surprises here (and I would recommend you watch the video of Singer and Dawkins talking... that is a real mind-blower).

Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton talks about the juxtaposition of evolution, ethics and the idea of the cosmopolitan. He presents the concept that we are very good at caring about close friends and family, but society today presents us the challenge: can we, as citizens of the world, care about others? Should we care about people who are not our blood? If not, why is blood more important? And further, is blood important in the first place? Why should I care about my own kid if I do not care about yours? These are interesting questions and perhaps not so obvious as they first appear. Elsewhere, to promote the idea of the cosmopolitan, Appiah says, "See one movie with subtitles a month." I do. Do you?

Michael Hardt, whose political works are complex but fascinating, talks of his time in Central America and how he was advised to go into the mountains and wage armed revolution against Ronald Reagan! The most interesting part of his talk is the idea that many debates have been on the pointless discussion of whether human nature is inherently good or bad. I have had that pointless discussion (I picked bad). Hardt argues the whole debate is stupid because nature is changeable, and therefore constructing a theory on this static foundation is going to inevitably fail. And, you know, he is probably right...

Martha Nussbaum later complained that although Examined Life displays "a keen visual imagination and a vivid sense of atmosphere and place" it nonetheless "presents a portrait of philosophy that is ... a betrayal of the tradition of philosophizing that began, in Europe, with the life of Socrates".

The film has one obvious flaw: those who know little about philosophy or have little interest are going to be bored, confused or upset. I would not recommend this film to most of my friends. But, at the same time, there are a select group of friends who I would highly recommend this film to. If you like philosophy, even a little bit, rent this or watch it on the Netflix... was a great way to wind down my day and keep my brain from going mushy.

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1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:

A Finite Journey Towards an Infinite Destination

Author: Urantia from United States
6 March 2011

Through art and philosophy, the material-minded man or woman is inveigled into the contemplation of the spiritual realities and universe values of eternal meanings. And so it is largely due to my appreciation for philosophy and art that I enjoyed watching the streaming version of this movie that streamed its way into my cosmic consciousness like a raging river of deep thoughts with superior gems of theoretical conjecturing and speculative reasoning often flowing considerably faster than my ability to comprehend. In fact, I recall a few memorable instances where I even enjoyed the rapid rhythmic structure of verbosity-saturated sentences containing numerous funky words whose meanings were far beyond my limited intellectual grasp. They simply flowed like passionately-potent pastry-prose poetry combining the occasional street-slang slur with intricately woven phrases of subtle sophistication concealing their hidden mystery-meanings beneath lyrical layers of perplexingly abstract idea-patterns. The presentation style contradicted what I have come to expect from many documentaries, namely a question-answering talking head in a well-lit dull-looking room, just sitting there in that sleepy chair with the very absence of movement in the scene inherently evoking a sense of boredom in me unless I am hearing content interesting enough to sufficiently sustain my motivation to stay awake. So, in this film, the non-traditional use of walking alongside the talking philosopher (or being in a moving car) while they extemporaneously expounded about this or that was a refreshingly welcome change from the usual soporific format. And to me, it had philosophical implications as well since I perceive philosophy to be more about The Journey as opposed to The Destination. The Journey of Life is more about The Search for Truth and where that takes me rather than foolishly thinking I found all of IT at some hypothetically final destination point in time and space where the journey is no more.

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12 out of 24 people found the following review useful:

Lacks of cinematographic creativity...

Author: tavira from Mexico
2 March 2009

The idea of making this documentary is great. Recently, I've read an article which says that the result of the arrogance of the academic philosophy is that it's place has been taken by new age prophets, self-esteem gurus, etc. Philosophy needs to be brought back to the streets. And to do that it must start questioning all those problems which analytics have rejected (life meaning, foundations of ethics, etc.).

Considering that, the motives of this film are very clear. However, I must say that while this work is overflowed with philosophic ideas, it lacks of cinematographic creativity. Sincerely, the ideas those people transmit are so interesting that to visually limit them to the philosophers face is wrong. I think it would've been more dynamic and less tiring for the viewer if the interviews with the philosophers would've been combined with some images of what they were talking.

About the philosophers who are interviewed, I couldn't stop thinking about Plato, who says that philosophers should rule the society. Everything which they say is so coherent and it's difficult to find an objection to what they think (perhaps with the exception of Zizek, who's opinions are very controversial but without a doubt express how brilliant he is). West and Butler are very cool, and the political views of Hardt and Nussbaum are very interesting. I mean: it seems that taking a cup of coffee with anyone of this people would change your mind in some many things.

Very good the idea in general, but poor in the way that is expressed. 7 out of 10.

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5 out of 14 people found the following review useful:

Yearning for a good philosophy flick? Skip this.

Author: nolan gray from United States
1 April 2010

Perhaps my hopes were too high, or perhaps I was mistaken for actually expecting this to be related to philosophy, but this movie was disappointing. I'll start with the bad and end with the good. We have a lot of bad to get through. From a technical stand-point, the movie was poorly planned. There wasn't a clear theme that connected one speaker to the next in most cases. The movie is shot in the style of a moving-talking-head theme, with speakers giving their spiel as they move around environments which are supposed to intensify their themes. The effect of this varies. Appiah's scene was well executed, with his themes directly pertaining to his environment. However, in many of the scenes this indented effect was incredibly unclear and avoided entirely. In most of the speeches, the background only made sense when confronted with an open and sympathetic mind. To anyone else, much of it is simply egg-heads in the local park. However, much of the technical sloppiness with the film didn't particularly bother much. What was truly puzzling was the actual subject matter. With the exception of a few mentions and thoughts, this movie would have been better titled "Contemporary Collectivist Thought". Rather than focusing on the actual philosophical study of ethics, meaning, truth etc. nearly all of the speakers focus on propagating a political agenda, mentioning the philosophy involved merely as a side note. Rather one agrees or disagrees with the politics being propagated, one can't help but feel cheated by the severe lack of true philosophy. There are plenty of political documentaries one could choose to watch which are far better. And let's not forget the proud tradition of philosophers and their politics; Sartre defended Stalin, Heidegger was a Nazi, and Plato was an authoritarian. But alas, I digress. The simple point I want to make is that this should have focused on philosophy and not politics. Perhaps it was poor interviewing or a lack of focus, but the movie generally failed the subject of philosophy. So what was good? While I feel some tracks were clearly stronger than others, the soundtrack was generally good. I thoroughly enjoyed each scene in which Cornel West spoke, and would have preferred to watch an hour and half of him alone compared to the documentary we were given. And, although it's sad to have to stoop to this in listing what was good, the idea of the movie was good. It was simply poorly executed. If one is looking for some interesting speeches on leftist political thought, look to those more involved in political studies. There are far better documentaries on the subject. What's more, if one has political views short of the far left, ignore this completely. If one wants to watch a film with philosophical themes, look elsewhere (namely Waking Life). If one has free time, look elsewhere. There is nothing about this film that I can see as great for anyone. Perhaps one could cut the West bits and present them as a nice little bit on philosophy. But beyond that, I have no reason to recommend this film.

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7 out of 22 people found the following review useful:


Author: (lerner-3) from Australia
25 March 2010

I'm surprised this movie is rated so highly. I thought any movie that tried to make you think would start at 5 and go down from there. While it's encouraging that that's not the case, it's unfortunate that this has to be the movie to hold up as an example.

There is nothing profound here. There is no coherent theme or narration to tie everything together. It is just a collection of people discussing their new-agey ideas seemingly off the top of their head. I would have much preferred a scripted lecture where every sentence was thought out in advance.

I was hoping to learn something here or at least say "hmm, that's interesting". But that didn't happen once. Maybe philosophy will always require a book to appreciate and will never lend itself to a good movie. I actually do think it is possible, this movie just doesn't deliver.

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2 out of 14 people found the following review useful:

Good Attempt, however a bit haphazard (All over the place) without a coherent structure

Author: CuriousGrl from Jamaica Plain, MA
13 March 2010

For centuries only the privileged who didn't have to toil and work, had the luxury of discussing philosophy and theorizing ideas.

About the meaning of life. There is meaning. It is Subjective. Life's meaning is different to each person. Whether it may be servitude for some (like the man in the film, forget his name), it could be the rearing of family for another, making music, or the joy of writing or film making like this director. Again even objectivity can be very subjective. There is no objective answer to the meaning of life, the goal is to find it for each one of us through awareness and then follow our calling to ensure we lead a more fulfilled and thus a happy life.

Good try Astra, maybe a better organized theme instead of haphazardly put material would prove more useful in the future.

My two cents :)

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