Monday, March 1, 2010

The Overthinking Of Man

Lecture / Screening Title: Examined Life
Location: Herbst Theater 401 Van Ness San Francisco, CA 94102
Date: February 25, 2010

Being a die-hard fan of Judith Butler's texts regarding the formation of gender as a social construct, I decided to trace my way to Van Ness for a midweek lecture. Part of the City Arts & Lectures program, the event was (much to my surprise, since when I purchased my ticket no such lineup was listed) both a movie screening and subsequent q&a session with the director, her sister and, of course, Judith Butler. The 500-seat theater was decorated with a handful of academics and high school teenagers pursuing extra credit. Speaking to those around me, no one knew what to expect, as very little description of the film was given in the program. The moderator shuffled on stage. Barely speaking into the microphone she announced the title of the film: Examined Life by Astra Taylor. She continued by noting that the film “makes thinking interesting.” I wondered when thinking wasn’t interesting as the screen ascended. In bold Helvetica were the words:

The first step towards philosophy is incredulity. – Diderot

“Oh God,” I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” But it was too late to run. I was about to enter an 80-minute mental masturbation session shot through the lens of our dear friend philosophy.


Directed by Astra Taylor, Examined Life visually records monologues by some of mankind’s richest minds. Best known for her 2005 film, Zizek!, about the Solvenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Taylor is undoubtedly more infamous for her marriage to indie rock front man Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel than her films. She holds a MA in Liberal Studies from the New School in New York and was named by Filmmaker Magazine in 2006 as one of the “25 new faces to watch.” Examined Life is her second movie in her very brief repertoire and has been touring since September 2008. The screening at the Herbst marked the end of the film’s run.

Initially inspired by the length of philosophy texts, Astra Taylor posed the question: “Can philosophy be summarized in brief onscreen interviews?” What followed was a disjointed mess that over-thought its own thoughts. Interviews included 10-minute snippets with Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, Peter Singer, Judith Butler, Cornel West, to name a few. Each segment included a form of movement (as in a walk, a sail in Central Park, a car ride in Union Square) to express words as taking place “in motion.” An “experiment in film thought,” Examined Life attempts to create dialogue between audience members. However, without a connecting factor or theme within the varied interviews, the film quickly drowns in information. In barely over an hour the film discusses recycling, disabilities, the female body, jazz, etc. etc. Not knowing what key elements to digest, I quickly repressed the entire experience.

Examined Life is philosophy for the ill informed. A set of clich├ęs building upon one another, the movie fails at drawing any conclusions concerning philosophy or the modern mind. Instead, Examined Life is a canon of contemporary thinkers forced to edit their words to a pathetic 10 minutes. The only reason I did not leave the venue yelling was because I knew Judith Butler was to take the stage. And, just my luck, she was late and barely uttered a word. My summary? An Examined Life is a life not worth living.

-- COURTNEY NICHOLS

2 comments:

  1. Its funny Courtney. I really wanted to see that film, but now have very little interest!

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  2. Well, taken as separate interviews they are great, but as a whole it just completely falls flat. She should just use the clips as a video installation piece or something of the sort...

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