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Astra Taylor Explains the “Examined Life”

Astra Taylor Explains the “Examined Life” (photo)

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To say that the films of 29-year-old documentarian Astra Taylor are thought-provoking is not such a lofty compliment; it’s literally the goal she has in marrying cinema with philosophy. 2005’s “Žižek!” trailed Slovenian psychoanalyst, philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek around the world as he expounded on ideology and made eccentric observations on love, revolution and his own self-critique. Taylor’s latest feature, “Examined Life,” is no less absorbing, an intelligent yet accessible anthology of ideas that sees eight highly influential thinkers of our time (including Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Michael Hardt — and yes, the wild and wooly Žižek) pontificating while taking walks through modern culture. Kwame Anthony Appiah talks cosmopolitanism from inside an airport, Žižek dissects ecology while digging through a garbage facility and Cornel West compares philosophy to jazz and blues while being driven around the streets of Manhattan by the director herself. When Taylor and I met up over coffee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, we discussed the possibility of chatting in the car in which West was filmed, but it was unfortunately being used to sing in by her husband, Jeff Mangum (reclusive frontman of the influential ’90s indie-pop band Neutral Milk Hotel), who also contributed some sounds to the film’s score.

I’m fascinated by your restraint in the film, since you occasionally appear onscreen, but with a far more passive voice than your subjects.

Every time you put yourself in a film you risk things [being] pointlessly narcissistic. Why make something autobiographical that doesn’t need to be? In this project, I perceive myself as an inquisitive voice that’s not necessarily so much identified with Astra as an individual, but taking on the perspective I want the audience to have: questioning but not attacking, and not arguing for its own sake. A lot of philosophy is based on argumentation, so I wanted to break philosophy out of that habit for a bit, give some space to listen, and try to get to the heart of people’s perspectives. It’s something I’m so ambivalent towards — my presence in the film. I haven’t reconciled to it.

Is it seeing yourself on camera that you’re uncomfortable with, as plenty of people are themselves?

No, it’s just when people insert themselves, it’s often gratuitous. At the same time, I made a pact with some of the philosophers in the film that if they were going to appear, I would appear — namely Avital Ronell, Judith Butler and my sister Sunaura. So I already had a certain responsibility to be a presence because their participation was contingent on that. Perhaps it’s more honest because it’s not an objective portrait of philosophy today as you might discover in philosophy departments. It’s absolutely not that. This is a film that focuses on ethics, human vulnerability and interdependence. These are things I’m interested in, so they’re highly personal, I suppose.

02192009_examinedlife.photo.jpgSo let’s get personal. What’s your philosophy on philosophy? Why is it so important to you?

This project is sort of appropriate to my personality. Even as a kid, I was always wrestling with the world. I had this magazine [as a child], “Kids and Animal Rights and the Environment.” I was already reading Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” and different books, especially on animal rights, which brings you into ethics and moral issues. My question at that time was: What are the mechanisms through which adults brainwash children into eating other animals? [laughs] How is this reinforced in culture, and the bullshit children’s books you get about the happy farm? I was investigating ideology, so that’s the motivation. I have some sort of vision of a more just world in my mind. I’m wondering why other people don’t agree with me, and why my values seem so out of step. This is the thing about being raised in a strange bohemian family; you’re out of step with everyone else, and you wonder, “Why are we so odd?”

It’s just something I’ve always done and gotten enjoyment out of. Questioning things, thinking about how we ought to live, how we could arrange society in a more equitable way. I also have a strong educational philosophy that’s rooted in my experience of being “unschooled,” being home-schooled but with no curriculum, no schedule. Your parents don’t play the role of teachers but maybe facilitators. When you’re unschooled, the world is your classroom, and it’s all about experiential learning: by doing, at your own pace, and on your own time.

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…