Astra Taylor, Canada, 2008, 87 mins, Documentary
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt
“The unexamined life is not worth living”
Much as it is profound and cuts to the chase, that opening quote is yet again wrongly attributed to Plato in the film's opening. When he put forward the idea in his Apology, Plato was actually quoting from Socrates speaking at his own trial. This is though the only serious flaw in an otherwise a thoughtful film for both the philosophical masses and the elite.
Although the title bears a striking similarity to the late Robert Nozick's collection of philosophical reflections entitled The Examined Life, this is not an adaptation of that book. Filmmaker Astra Taylor has probably concocted this philosphical meditation film for Philosophy freshers or adventurous artsy students, who have just signed up for the Philosophy Club. Unlike An inconvenient Truth ,which has Al Gore as its one orator, this is a series of vox pops, in which nine philosphical intellectuals are each given ten minutes to ex press their deepest thoughts and feelings about their place in contemporary society and vice-versa in various locations in New York and San Francisco that hold particular resonance for them and their ideas.
The viewer is immersed in a variety of debates ranging from Professor Judith Butler of the University of California discussing the fundamentals of people's pursuit of individualism in the eminently appropriate location of San Francisco to Peter Singer highlighting the pain and suffering caused to the world by consumerism in front of the posh boutiques of Fifth Avenue.
Despite the variety of debates included in the film, there is only so much you can do with nine influential thinkers in 90 minutes. The visual aspect is somewhat half-baked and the concept of cramming nine creme de la creme intellectuals into 90 minutes to rant and drift on everthing from the fundamentals of moral philosophy to cultural theory is painstakingly broad to say the least, especially for first time philosphy students and viewers, who might not be that familiar with the subject. It would have been far more engaging for the viewer to have got them debating with each other the subjects that have symbolised the first decade of the 2000s, particularly 9/11's impact on the world, America's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush's and Tony Blair's legacies and last but not least the dreaded recession.
Having said that, the film is by no means devoid of memorable philosphical discourse which ranges from Cornel West comparing philosophy to jazz and blues to Slavoj Zizek (who prior to this appeared in his very own feature documentary Zizek, also directed by Taylor) speaking at a recycling centre about the many different interpretations of ideology and focusing in particular on how ecology, to quote Marx, is the ‘new opium for the masses'.
This is a perfectly watchable film for a selected cinema audience of die-hard philosophy fans but I suspect few members of the popcorn audience will find it engaging.