Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life premieres in New York this week and opens in other cities soon. It follows eight philosophers, public intellectuals, writers, or whatever you want to call them, on trips through public spaces like airports and garbage dumps.
Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, and Judith Butler discuss their ideas with the filmmaker on strolls, or while rowing a boat (in the case of Hardt) or from the backseat of a moving car (West).
Taylor’s film focuses on conversation and movement. It avoids the usual talking-head, quick-montage, stock-footage, re-enactment style of today’s feature-length documentaries. Examined Life ignores and therefore refutes television techniques. It is serene yet exciting, allowing us to understand and experience the mind-states evoked by the thinkers in the movie: “anxiety is the mood par excellence of ethicity” (Ronell); philosophy emerges from “personal catastrophe lyrically expressed” (West); “we should develop a much more terrifying abstract materialism” (Zizek).
Rooted to seats in a café on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, Taylor and I spoke about her film, which will also be published in book form by the New Press.
n+1: In some of the early reviews of Examined Life there was this idea that people were resistant to films about ideas and had to be told your movie overcomes that. Yet it seems like that was unnecessary, something has changed in our culture and now people don’t need that prod. Examined Life embodies that change.
Astra Taylor: There was a lot of theory bashing during the culture wars. The culmination of that anti-intellectualism came after 9/11, when there was this feeling that after this crisis you were supposed to close your mind down and not question things, to live in a state of perpetual fear so you couldn’t think. That was pretty silly and it’s starting to get reversed.
n+1: Does part of that have to do with Zizek, the subject of your first film? He used to be portrayed as a clown if he was mentioned in mainstream publications, now he’s taken more seriously. There used to be this will to denigrate him that’s disappeared.
AT: I’m not sure being portrayed as a buffoon precludes taking someone seriously. Zizek has entered the public sphere in a way no intellectual has done in the past, there have been multiple movies about him besides mine. He’s broken through and drawn people into a whole world of theory.
n+1: He’s always billed as “Slavoj Zizek, Philosopher and Psychoanalyst.” That made me wonder, is he really a psychoanalyst in the sense that I could be his patient?
AT: Absolutely not. And he’s never successfully gone through analysis. He tells this story about how he lied his way through a few sessions with Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan’s son-in-law. He would invent dreams, tell Miller he was having sexual fantasies that he was making up.
n+1: The problem with psychoanalysis is that analysts never talk enough. It doesn’t seem like that would be a problem with Zizek. We see in both your films that he talks non-stop.
AT: He might give you some insight! Spending time with Zizek started to blur my reality and change the way I thought about desire and a lot of other things, including movies. He got me more interested in the history of cinema.
n+1: Examined Life doesn’t seem like it was made by someone uninterested in the history of cinema. It’s more cinematic than most documentaries.
AT: I really wanted it to be that way. I had this sort of very basic epiphany that moving images were supposed to move. If you’re not moving the camera somehow you’re not getting the energy that you need.
n+1: The movement in your film is not just camera movement but also the movement within the frame: bicycles, escalators, or just the movement of people on one street approaching another street perpendicular to it with cars going by, like in the Judith Butler sequence.
AT: You know, I have a hard time writing sometimes because I’m so aware of how brilliant other people are on the page. With movies it frees me to experiment. The movies I like—and the books and albums—have a formal device that organizes them. I want some sort of architecture, not three-act narrative structure.
n+1: In terms of the placement of the interviews, the film does have a kind of narrative arc.
AT: It’s supposed to have an intellectual or emotional arc but not in terms of character or chronology.
n+1: The transitions between the subjects create a drive that’s like a story is being told, the way the film moves from person to person through their ideas.
AT: That’s what I worked really hard on with my editor, Robert Kennedy. We tried to pick up themes, words, phrases, feelings, ideas that recur throughout the conversations to tell a sort of intellectual story.
n+1: One transition that was particularly interesting was the one between Michael Hardt and Zizek, which goes from …
AT: “The beautiful better world” …
n+1: … to a garbage dump.
AT: The pan up to beautiful trees, revolutionary desire and this utopian ambition and then basically just plunging you back into trash and chaos.
n+1: At the same time, it does imbue a kind of grandeur or majesty to the trash Zizek is moving through. How did you find these locations?
AT: Zizek wanted to talk about ecology. I had been spending a lot of time in Tijuana for another project among people who live in a mountain of refuse which has now actually been shut down. It’s an apocalyptic environment that I have an attraction/repulsion to. When Zizek said he wanted to talk about ecology I knew we needed a garbage dump. Then it was a matter of finding one in London where he was.
n+1: Filming the people in the cities they live in or where they happened to be was a great idea. Each thinker is shown one after the other, with the exception of Cornel West, who’s a presiding spirit of the film. He has his own segment but he’s intercut a few times throughout the film between other people.
AT: Well, the whole filmmaking process is a very strange one. You write a proposal but then you’re on the ground actually working on it and it changes. In my proposal I said there would be a narrator or an anti-narrator, a recurring voice. Or at one point I thought maybe a silent block somehow, something to come back to, because I couldn’t help but imagine that this was some sort of contemplative film, one where you could really take things in. But it’s not that. It’s a fast walk. There’s not a moment to spare and we’re rushing toward a destination that keeps eluding us. In my proposal there was this kind of romantic open space. But as I shot I realized that didn’t exist. Well, Cornel West gave me my ending. The minute we shot him getting out of the car and walking into the night I knew I had the end of my movie. And he gave me the title, when he talks about Socrates and quotes him. I wanted that to be the title but I didn’t expect any of the people I interviewed to actually say it. So that was the beginning.
n+1: Is that your car you’re driving him around in, or one you rented for the film?
AT: Oh, it’s my 1995 Volvo wagon with no air conditioning. Which is why he’s sweating.
n+1: Well, it’s summer, and he’s wearing a black suit.
AT: And a scarf.
n+1: It’s an affecting scene, where there’s that pan over to you and you’re talking to him and looking in the mirror at the same time and driving trough traffic in Manhattan.
AT: Cornel West demands, and he intensely drew, eye contact. But I was driving through rush hour traffic. One lucky thing, and unplanned, was that I began his interview at around 5 and it ended around 7. The sun was setting. So there’s a sunset and it’s twilight. The interview ends as dusk is falling and he’s walking off into the night. I thought that was a fine note to end a philosophy movie on.
n+1: West talks about Romanticism and how he’s anti-Romantic. He doesn’t believe in the wholeness that is the project of Romanticism. And yet the film is kind of romantic. The people in it are very attractive personalities and exist in the film as fully rounded characters. They each have a strong presence that I don’t find with the people in most documentaries I see. How much of that is a projection of them as real people, and how much of it is something you’ve created by using them as actors, moving them through space, and in the editing?
AT: It’s both. I mean, these are people who are stars in their disciplines already. They’re engaged in this enterprise and have a following because of it. There’s a proudly performative dimension to the film and a sense of spectacle and drama and theater and an attempt to bring life to ideas in an engaging way. When people criticize philosophy they typically say, “Oh, it has nothing to do with the real world.” And that’s something that drives me mad because philosophy obviously emerges from that place. Where else would it come from? This is my attempt to just viscerally show that. Philosophy is often regarded as this disembodied mental exercise, this exercise of total abstraction. It’s cold, it’s rational, it’s calculating. But then there’s this philosophy of the body, which is warm, and I wanted this film to convey a compassion and hope people don’t associate with philosophy.
n+1: Judith Butler talks about that in her sequence. She addresses the idea of the body and self-presentation. And in that sequence, she and your sister, who is in a wheelchair, are shopping in a thrift shop and your sister says it’s like a TV show: Shopping with Judith Butler. After you see the film, she does seem like someone who should have a TV show.
AT: She’d be great!
n+1: She’s like a combination of Richard Lewis and Mark E. Smith. She has this definite performative quality.
AT: Do you think she seems like a ham?
n+1: Not at all. She’s a compelling figure. Even when you just see her crossing the street. To me, that’s a mark of a good movie, when the people look interesting just crossing the street.
AT: Typically the media we watch engages in charisma that is very shallow. It’s purely physical and based on conventional standards of how pretty you are. The people in this film radiate a charisma that physicality is a part of, but it’s also their commitment, their mental agility, their ability to express themselves thoughtfully and meaningfully.
n+1: As soon as they start talking they become attractive. Like when Kwame Anthony Appiah is talking in the airport and there’s that last shot of him where’s he’s in the center of the frame standing in the middle of the walkway. He’s not somebody you’d necessarily notice if you were at the airport trying to make a plane. But having just listened to him and watched him for ten minutes, when you end with that shot, it’s compelling and memorable. It’s punctuation that brings us closer to him, even though it’s not a closeup.
AT: Film directs attention. Philosophy does that too. It calls attention to nuance and particulars and ways of seeing the world. But, you know, I do set up my subjects for success. The film is not a critique of contemporary philosophy. I mean, I could give you my critique. The film is performing my critique of academic philosophy by taking philosophy to the streets.
n+1: Sure, but the concept of taking something to the streets can be hokey. “Taking it to the streets” is a news media cliché. That could backfire in many ways but in your film it works. The film brings philosophy back in a direct way. There are no books in the film, no one is seen at a desk writing. In fact, there’s no description of who the people are, besides their names. We aren’t told what they’ve written, where they work. It isn’t necessary to the film. Did you realize you didn’t need that stuff after you shot, or did you think that going in?
AT: I always thought that I wouldn’t. I didn’t understand what insight it would bring. I wanted the film to direct the connection between everyday life and abstract thinking. I wanted to make a film that was accessible and not exclusive, that invites people in.
n+1: It’s more accessible than a film that would try to popularize this subject. It’s not cut up into small chunks that are just sound bites, it’s not all big faces. That style makes people seem obnoxious.
AT: It’s condescending. This film isn’t meant to supplant reading or philosophy as written word. It’s a path which can augment and complement it. It’s not meant to precede it. This isn’t something you’re supposed to do instead of reading. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people saying the film encouraged them to read books by the people in the film.
n+1: It made me want to read Martha Nussbaum. She’s shot differently than most people in the film, more face-on. She’s talking about the social contract and she starts to look like a Founding Father.
AT: She’s on a mission! It’s interesting how people state their body language, you can read what they’re saying in conjunction with their manner. Avital Ronell talks about a philosophy of anxiety and she seems anxious and skeptical of me in the opening scene of the film.
n+1: The cinema exists to show consciousness in some way but the hardest thing in movies is to convincingly show people thinking.
AT: The suspense in that for me is, what will they say next? What are they thinking and how will they articulate it? Will they find the right words? So much of day-to-day life is finding the right words.
n+1: And deciding what to wear. Avital Ronell is dressed kind of exotically in the film. She starts it off talking about anxiety and West ends it talking about mystery. The film is bracketed by those two thoughts. West and Ronell set the tone for the whole film. Sometimes it seems like the walking and moving through space make the talking unnecessary. The moods come out without speech. It’s almost like the walking would have been enough.
AT: If I really had balls I probably would have done it that way!
n+1: West talks about how people think philosophy is disconnected from life, but he reminds us that a lot of things are part of life that people think of as separate from life. One thing he mentions is televisual culture.
AT: “Televisual pleasure,” he calls it.
n+1: Then he says he likes certain TV shows but he doesn’t name them. That made me wonder.
AT: What are they?
n+1: He doesn’t say. He switches the subject to music and talks about Beethoven and Curtis Mayfield.
AT: And the Beatles!
n+1: It’s hard to imagine him watching TV shows.
AT: But he’d like to be on them.
n+1: You might like to be on a soap opera but that doesn’t mean you’d want to watch it every day.
AT: That is a very different thing!