Filmmaker Astra Taylor, whose debut was the documentary Zizek!, has been touring with her latest, Examined Life, which has brought her back to New York as limited screenings resumed yesterday at Symphony Space. You really can’t go wrong when you’ve brought together a fresh selection of eight contemporary philosophers to devote a high density 10-minute segment to each one; but in addition to that, the personalities have been curated with careful thought to whose idea bounces off whose, and effective cinematic decisions have been deployed, the prominent one being the attempt to take philosophy out on the streets and put it in motion, so that it feels like the ideas are awakening in a social space (the park, 5th avenue, the lake, the airport, etc), instead of being presented to us in the form of stationary talking heads positioned in some well-lit room.
The full list of philosphers, in order of appearance, features Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwarne Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler. Cornel West quite easily packs the most heat in his charming and rhythmic manner, as he shares his insights on the nature of philosophy and the Truth, with a capital T, while the filmmaker drives him around in a car to eventually drop him off at Union Square. West is closely matched by my personal favorite, Slavoj Zizek, who doesn’t think that nature or ecology is a balanced system as some new age people seem to think, but that it has always been a series of extreme catastrophies, and that what is required is not going back to nature, but divorcing ourselves from it.
The Q&A was far more intimate and informal than what I’d expected: Astra showed up as the end credits were rolling, and stood amongst the tables scattered in the lower level with her coat still on and her hands often in her pockets, picking questions up herself without a host of any sort. We learned that this list of eight was pretty much her original shortlist and the only person she had to cajole and buy fancy dinners for was her sister Sunaura Taylor, who was born with a disease that affects her joints, which has now confined her to the wheelchair. Judith Butler had met her in Berkley, and for her segment that takes place on the streets of San Francisco, insisted that Sunaura join her. Astra referred to her sister as “Sunny” and said that she had orignally declined the request. She also talked about the semi-vérité nature of the film, with most scenes being set up: Zizek would be filmed by a heap of trash, Peter Singer would walk on luxuy-filled 5th avenue as he talks about the morality of what you spend your money on, and so on. She felt that the best moments of the film, however, were the unplanned ones: reactions of people in the background, Micahel Hardt’s boat colliding with a rock, winding up with Cornel West in a car (due to scheduling), which serves as a perfect frame to contain his explosive energy with; San Francisco turning suddenly cold, leading Sunaura to a thrift store where someone must help her try a sweater out, minutes after Judith Butler and she are talking about the role of interdependence in our society, the expectations of what our body parts can do, and the awkwardness produced by picking up a cup of coffee with your mouth even though it is perfect capable of doing so.
Someone asked about the lack of animal rights issues addressed in the film, apart from the slight reference Peter Singer makes to vegetarianism, and Astra said that because that was the one thing that got her started and is close to her heart (as a four-year-old she realized that she eats animals and then later that other kids actually enjoyed eating animals), she made a conscious decision to not give that a center stage, especially since the movie was about philosophy, not animal rights, and there were already other great movies about animal rights. She talked a little bit about getting funding for the project, mainly how getting an exerpienced executive producer on board enabled her to do things she alone couldn’t have, and how some of the rejections she got were very clear, such as “The people of the Netherlands will never be interested in seeing this movie”, “The people of France will never be interested in seeing this movie”.
She was asked which of the philosophers presented she most aligned with, and she said that in the typically liberal fashion, she found herself unable to devote entirely to one line of thought like some of these philosophers were, and that this kind of “open-mindedness” is the reason she finds herself unable to get into a PhD program. Someone wanted to know, since there were only leftist philosophers presented, if there were any right-wing philosphers in existence that weren’t religious. Nobody seemed to know, but Astra concluded that there must be. She said that the leftist spectrum was a conscious choice in order to have a cohesive chemistry between the ideas presented, which were still pretty diverse though from the same side of the field, and that if she had included some right-wing philosphers, she wouldn’t be surprised if some of them convinced us of their line of thought.
Examined Life is showing next on the 19th (with Q&A) and the 26th at Symphony Space. Details. There is a companion book being released, featuring fuller transcripts of the conversations taped for the purpose of the documentary.