Examined Life (Review)

Eight philosophers, 10 minutes, lots to think about

Plato said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Director Astra Taylor uses this nugget as a jumping-off point for Examined Life, an engaging but often elusive documentary that works as a decent primer of various philosophical movements and ideas. Think a less aesthetically ambitious, more academic version of Waking Life.

Taylor gives eight different philosophers — Cornel West, Peter Singer, Avital Ronell, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek — 10 minutes to ruminate on essentially one central question: “Does life have meaning?” Each is filmed verite style in environments of their choosing: Times Square, aboard a rowboat in Central Park, an airport and a garbage dump, among other everyday locations.

Their answers range from the concrete (like that of the smug Singer, who believes that everyone should engage in a clear common good) to the playfully abstract (like that of Ronell, who professes a suspicion of meaning, saying, “If you have a good conscious, then you’re worthless”).

West is the lone voice to break the succession of speakers: Taylor weaves the verbose, ever-engaging Princeton professor/author/activist/critic throughout the film’s 90 minutes — including its opening and closing — a clever, effective device that only serves to emphasize his singular presence. Holed up in the back seat of a car moving through teeming Manhattan streets, West drops mad knowledge: a mind-boggling flow of viscerally delivered sentences rife with metaphor and name-dropping (from Socrates to Charlie Parker), culminating in his self-characterization as “a Jazz man in the life of the mind.” One almost wishes Taylor had given West the entire 90 minutes. Grade: B-

Opens April 17 at the Esquire Theatre. Check out show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.
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