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05.20.09

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Phaedra

Fare Play: Cornel West takes a ride in 'Examined Life.'

Walking the Talk

'Examined Life' takes a walk with leading philosophers on a trip through the city.

By Molly Zapp


ACCORDING to philosopher and author Kwama Anthony Appiah, centuries of population growth and migration have changed the way humans must interact with and support each other.

"As an American, you exist in a kind of virtual relationship with 300 million people," Appiah says as he strolls through an international airport, cameras rolling, in Examined Life. "We now have to be responsible for fellow citizens and fellow citizens of the world."

Such is the general ethos throughout Examined Life, an unconventional documentary featuring Cornel West, Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek and a handful of other philosophers and cultural critics walking and musing about the ethical considerations of 21st century living. Billed as a film that "pulls philosophy out of academic journals and classrooms and puts it back on the streets," the work by 29-year-old director Astra Taylor could easily be renamed Intellectuals Discuss How To Be a Decent Human (or At Least Not an Asshole).

"How do I take into account the interests of others?" asks Peter Singer, author of The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, which advocates a culture of giving in which all people who live comfortably give a modest portion of their income to effective organizations that fight extreme poverty. "We have a moral obligation to help, just as we have a moral obligation not to harm," says Singer as he strolls along Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.

The film asks us to not be in denial about the wider impact of the economic, ethical and environmental choices we all make. Don't deny that the hundreds of dollars one could spend on shoes could not be better spent on feeding a starving person in a poor country, Singer says. Don't pretend that the $12 shirt that feels like a sweet deal for the end consumer isn't the result of another person's body and labor being exploited in poor working conditions.

"The responsible being is one who thinks they have never been responsible enough," says Avital Ronell, the literary critic and New York University professor.

Cornel West compares life to Beethoven symphonies and Charlie Parker jazz tunes, and Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor walk around San Francisco and discuss the convergence of gender and disability deviance. "Both challenge the traditional ways we think about the body," feminist theorist Butler philosophizes. "I understand we need each other in order to address our social and political needs."

Together, the nine philosophers up the ethical ante and emphasize action driven by compassion and consideration instead of ignorance, judgment or greed. Examined Life is not about being guilted into buying a $30 necklace made in rural Nigeria where $2 goes to charity. It's about humans being accountable to each other for not exploiting or ignoring one another and the environment.

Though indeed "out of the classroom," plenty of the film is beyond the access of people who forgot to study ethics or radical leftist political critiques. Besides the walking conversation between Butler and Sunaura Taylor and a few questions prompted by director Astra Taylor to some of the other philosophers, the film is essentially a series of gently edited smart folks' soliloquies.

Examined Life is easily the most cerebral 95 minutes one could spend at the movies this year, and it requires serious engagement and patience from the viewer to get most of it. If you see it in the theaters, skip the pre-movie bong rips and bring a notebook and pen to scribble down some of the quotes as they go. Or wait until the DVD comes out and have the pause and rewind buttons handy: if strategies for ethical living are your cup of tea, you'll want to hear them twice.


Movie Times EXAMINED LIFE (Unrated; 95 min.), a documentary directed by Astra Taylor, plays at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.


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