Word to the Wise
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Word to the Wise

Photo courtesy Sphinx Productions and The National Film Board of Canada.

Besides the odd beer-fuelled 2 a.m. dispute about the existence of God and perhaps an undergrad course on existentialism, most of us have fairly little by way of daily exposure to philosophy. Examined Life, a film by Astra Taylor and co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada, attempts to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and restore it to its original place at the centre of ordinary life. The documentary had its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is now back in Toronto for a run at the Royal Cinema. It consists of a series of conversations with relatively well-known philosophers (Cornel West, Judith Butler, Peter Singer, Slavoj Žižek, and a few others), each giving a glimpse into the kinds of questions they wrestle with. The conversations are all thoughtful without being heavy-handed: they serve as handy primers for novices to the field and offer interesting snapshots of notable personalities for more experienced students of philosophy.
“We’re fellowless two-legged linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose body [sic] will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That’s us.” Cornel West is a philosopher, pastor, and civil rights advocate known for having a touch of the crazy about him (also for his cameo in the Matrix sequels), and his opening sequence is a surefire way to get an audience’s ears perked up. If the mere mention of philosophy makes you zone out, Taylor’s undeniable hook aims to get you listening. The tenor of the film overall is more studied, however, and she avoids the obvious temptation to dumb her material or interview subjects down. Each philosopher gets ten minutes of screen-time, and the questions they raise cover a decent swath of the philosophical landscape, with an eye to matters of public policy in particular: cultural/national identity after globalization, ecological responsibility, gender roles, physical norms and disability, charity for the developing world, and the need for philosophy itself feature prominently.
Examined Life makes for a pleasant escape from more typical cinematic fare (the airy cinematography in particular goes far in brightening what might otherwise seem pedantic or dry), but it does suffer from a lack of focus. The various conversations are united only in that they take place on the border between philosophy and everyday life, but that’s rather a lot of terrain, and it’s easy to wind up feeling lost in it. Without a more defined aim or a tighter set of questions to shape the discussion, Taylor’s subjects venture too far afield of one another to give the film much of a coherent shape. To some degree that may be the point—a little bit of open-ended meandering can be refreshing—but she veers too far in that direction. All in all though, it’s a ninety-minute crash-course well worth taking.
Examined Life is playing at the Royal Cinema until February 4.