For the purposes of movie-going, documentarian Astra Taylor poses the key question in the second sequence of Examined Life, as she strolls in a sunny park with New York University literature professor Avital Ronell. Books that are hundreds of pages long are an appropriate medium for exploring philosophy, notes Taylor, but what about feature-length films? The answer, based on this evidence: Um, not so much.
In Examined Life we hear from eight prominent academics, the most famous of whom is Princeton's Cornel West. (Perhaps because of his fame he gets more screen time: three scenes to the others' one each.) One at a time, the thinkers are filmed moving through one urban locale or another as they speak about various aspects of philosophy, loosely defined.
You might call it an infomercial for academics. The talks remind me of my own stint in graduate school, when I was thrilled to discuss heady ideas like being and meaning and human rights with knowledgeable professors and students. I felt a little of the old thrill as I watched Examined Life. But these mini-lectures are too quick to be illuminating.
To be certain, it's striking to see these folks in places other than where you'd see them in most documentaries, which is to say their book-lined offices. And yes, there are interesting moments as Kwame Anthony Appiah talks about cosmopolitanism, Slavoj Zizek about the fallacies of environmentalism, Peter Singer about vegetarianism. But although film as a medium does many things uniquely well, it's not good for conveying dense frameworks of ideas. When we read we can pause, contemplate, reread. Films keep rolling.
Films convey complex emotions very well, though, which is why Examined Life's most compelling sequence is the one in which something emotionally complex happens. In San Francisco the UC-Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler goes on a stroll with activist (and sister of the filmmaker) Sunaura Taylor, who uses a wheelchair. Refreshingly, unlike the others this sequence is a discussion, not a lecture, and it's a fascinating talk about the rights of disabled people.
Then the two duck into a thrift store, where Taylor buys a sweater, with some difficulty. It's a pretty simple act, but after the discussion, it's also remarkably poignant and powerful.