Examined Life

Astra Taylor's philosophizing-heads docu serves as a playful riposte to the notion that movies are for turning one's mind off.

Starting with Socrates’ observation that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” “Examined Life,” Astra Taylor’s second philosophizing-heads docu (following “Zizek!”), serves as a playful riposte to the notion that movies are for turning one’s mind off. Like “Waking Life,” sans animation, the pic follows a variety of deep thinkers for a few minutes at a time — the key difference being that the ones here, including the “Elvis of cultural theory,” Slavoj Zizek, are pros. Taylor’s stimulating film, enlivened by creative location shooting, will surely find an appreciative audience among highbrow cinephiles, with serious ancillary receipts to follow.

Meeting the “Why not just read the books?” question head-on, Taylor situates her walking and talking subjects within apt environments — the window dressing of New York’s Fifth Avenue for Peter Singer’s meditation on the (im)morality of conspicuous consumption, a public park for Martha Nussbaum’s take on social democracy, a bustling airport for Kwame Anthony Appiah’s ode to human evolutionary cosmopolitanism, a garbage heap for Zizek’s recycling of ecological ideology, and the filmmaker’s own speedy car for passenger Cornel West’s accelerated theories of death and desire, etc.

Among these, in terms of synaptic rigor and sheer star power, West is best, so it’s no wonder that Taylor thrice gives him the podium. But the whole of “Examined Life” is greater than the sum of its parts, as Robert Kennedy’s acute editing allows ideas — particularly those having to do with the recognition and acceptance of human imperfection — to carry from one segment to another. Appropriately, tech credits are splendid, despite flaws.

Examined Life


  • Production: A Sphinx and National Film Board of Canada production, in association with Ontario Media Development Corp., TVO and Knowledge Network. (International sales: National Film Board of Canada, Montreal. U.S. sales: Filmswelike, Toronto.) Produced by Bill Imperial, Lea Marin. Executive producers, Ron Mann, Silva Basmajian. Directed, written by Astra Taylor.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), John M. Tran; editor, Robert Kennedy; sound, Sanjay Mehta; sound designer, John Laing. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 13, 2008. Running time: 88 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Sunaura Taylor.
  • Music By: