Everyday wisdom

Pub date March 3, 2009
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Taking her cue from the oft-cited Socratic proscription that "the unexamined life is not worth living," Winnipeg-born director Astra Taylor returns from the success of her 2005 documentary Žižek! to offer a Lyceum of pontificating sophists. Examined Life finds the 20-something Taylor, a New School graduate turned New Waver, engaging in itinerant tête-à-têtes with some of the most venerated — and occasionally vilified — theorists of the last 40 years.

Interviewees, who appear in roughly 10-minute blocks, include civil rights advocate and cultural historian Cornell West, queer theorist and Gender Trouble provocateur Judith Butler, and Slovene Lacanian Slavoj Zizek, the so-called Elvis of cultural theory. Channeling the philosophic tradition of flânerie, Taylor purposely extracts her subjects from the academic setting in which they are usually immured and films them in mid-stride — at the street corner, boutique and even the garbage dump. The final product has a jet-setting, gonzo aesthetic, as the documentarian shuttles from London to New York to San Francisco to interrogate her subjects.

Butler, Zizek, and Michael Hardt (Duke professor and coauthor with Antonio Negri of several notable Autonomist tomes) are the most fascinating to inspect onscreen, likely because of the contentious aura that surrounds their collective work. Butler’s ambuutf8g meditation on the politics of disability has an introspective subtlety when paired with Zizek’s screed on the ecology movement, delivered amid piles of rubbish — while Hardt’s discussion of revolution is all the more odd set on Central Park’s limpid Turtle Pond. Throughout, Taylor is determined that motility (walking, rowing, driving) is a dominant leitmotif, whether it be languid and reflexive or brusque and pedantic. While the conversations self-consciously aim toward jargon-free transparency and inclusivity, the film’s attempt at hipster populism will probably fall on deaf ears outside of the university circuit.

Examined Life’s choice of celebrity theorists will, of course, provoke questions as to why certain icons were included and others were left out. So, obnoxious as it may sound, where was Paul Virilio or Giorgio Agamben or Michael Taussig? A sequel may be in order.

EXAMINED LIFE opens Fri/6 at the Sundance Kabuki.