Sunday, March 01, 2009

Examined Life

The IFC Center is currently showing a documentary showcase of several modern philosophers called Examined Life.

Filmmaker Astra Taylor does a good job of adding kinetic energy to the stream of (essentially) lectures by putting each subject in a public area, mostly around New York. Topics of philosophy touch on consumerism and ecology, but the threads are mainly connected by the idea of meaning (or lack thereof) in existence and the individual’s connection with society.

Although certain theories such as Social Contract are alluded to, Taylor manages to steer clear of getting mired in a historical survey of philosophical thought. That frees her to let the subjects focus on their own modern ideas.

The film succeeds in keeping the speakers focused, without diverging on too many tangents. While it shows that the filmmaker has the skill to converge it all into a tight film, it’s hard not to feel like there wasn’t enough meat to the exploration. Each person had 10 minutes to get across their entire philosophy, when it's easy to see how they could’ve gone on for hours and hours. Thus Examined Life comes across as an overview of ideas, without being able to really explore the depths or details of those ideas. I suppose that’s not a knock on the film but more an observation on the limitation of the format. Taylor herself admitted to the amount that had to get cut out.

Afterwards, my friend wondered aloud if the people in films just talked endlessly about philosophy. My guess would be yes, but I took issue with some of the subtle allegations in the film that there is no middle ground in between being a deep thinking, cerebral citizen of the world and the mindless, uncaring, consumerist automaton.

While waiting for the showtime, my friend and I were drinking beers talking about plans for our next pub crawl. Is that not okay? Do we have to be dissecting the nature of man every hour of every day? I love philosophy and examining our nature, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but I don’t feel compelled to have to do that exclusively. I take enjoyment in mindless, stupid things as much as deep, thought provoking matters. I think it’s in our nature to have those dichotomies and juxtapositions.

One of the topics that I enjoyed the most was Cornel West speaking that there is no definitive goal or meaning in life, and what that means for our concept of “failure”. And while each philosopher had his or her own concept of “meaning”, whether there is one or not, they seemed to agree that we are social creatures who have an intrinsic need to interact.

As an only child who has always had strong loner tendencies, it made me wonder about my own views towards the nature of society. I’ve come to whole-heartedly believe that we need that interaction and contact to live “meaningfully”. Living in New York City, I can’t help but be constantly exposed to people. I wondered what my inclination are towards people I meet or strangers on the street. Do I automatically have trust and respect in those I don't even know?

Several of the companies I’ve worked for have a philosophy of making sure you do your work on the assumption that other people are lazy, slow, incorrect or dumb. Expect that clients will not give you the correct information, or predict that the printer will be late in fulfilling the order. That inherent mistrust for others seemed awkward for me. Although there were instances which proved that theory true, I have a feeling that those negative, paranoid thoughts had much to do with my unhappiness at those jobs.

My thoughts also led me to my parents, who more than anyone I’ve ever known, believe that the default inclination of human beings is to be good. They put trust and faith in people to points which make me uneasy. Yet my mom will still clutch her purse with a deathgrip at restaurants, even upscale ones. It reminded me again of our often contradictory thinking.

Not sure where I was going with the end of this post, but the film got some of those mental gears turning, which is the point of the film, and why I enjoyed it so much.

But Coraline in 3-D was also pretty awesome.


Jess said...

I think it's all about balance. Too much of one thing or one way of thinking could send you to an institution. Or to jail.

Laoser said...

Agreed. I think that's what I was sort of getting to in the end.

That we all toe the line between selfish and selfless, and how I'm fascinated about how and when we choose to be one or the other.