Reviews

Examined Life

This punctures the image of philosophy as a rarefied field, where philosophers live in some kind of Cartesian bubble, their brains effectively separated from their bodies.


Examined Life

Director: Astra Taylor
Cast: Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler, Sanaura Taylor
Length: 88 minutes
Studio: Sphinx Productions and the National Film Board of Canada
Year: 2008
Distributor: Zeitgeist
MPAA Rating: NR
Release Date: 2010-23-02
Website

The tag line for Astra Taylor's Examined Life is “Philosophy is in the Streets”. This phrase not only calls attention to the film's mise-en-scène, but also its primary insight: philosophy, rather than being a remote pursuit conducted in splendid isolation, is an activity that is intimately tied to what people do as well as what they think. The eight conversations that make up the film are not only grounded by everyday urban landscapes, but those doing the talking are preoccupied with questions of doing: how people act towards each other, towards (other) animals, towards things, and how they use their bodies.

Taylor's film is constructed around nine 'walks' with eight philosophers and artist Sunaura Taylor, who joins Judith Butler in San Francisco's Mission District for a discussion about individualism and human bodies. 'Walk' here means 'mobility' in a broader sense; while some of her subjects do walk in a literal way, others 'walk' by different means: Michael Hardt in a row boat, Cornel West in the back of a car, Sunaura Taylor in a wheelchair. Slavoj Žižek wanders around a garbage dump. By whatever conveyance, each walk engages Taylor's subjects in conversation about distinct, but related topics.

One connecting theme is the social relevance of philosophical inquiry into human actions and choices. While some of the discussions are more directly about themes like justice and ethics, Martha Nussbaum on disability or Michael Hardt on revolution, for examples, even the more abstract discussions of meaning and truth, which most immediately animate Avital Ronell and Cornel West, are about how people relate to the world and negotiate questions of meaning in what they do, not as an abstract matter, but as a matter of everyday living.

Placing the discussants in settings like a Central Park rowing pond, or walking along urban lakes and city streets, frames philosophy as a practical activity, something that people do in much the same way as anybody does anything else. It punctures the image of philosophy as a rarefied field, where philosophers live in some kind of Cartesian bubble, their brains effectively separated from their bodies. Indeed, implicit and explicit connections between mind and body, and bodily needs, desires, and purposes, is another persistent theme in the film's walks.

Of all of Taylor's informants, Cornel West makes the strongest case for seeing philosophy, and the life of the mind more broadly, as real work. The others she speaks with do so more by simply focusing on how what they do has implications for life outside of the mind. Indeed, while Peter Singer is the only one who talks about the idea of “applied ethics”, all of the thinkers featured in Examined Life are interested in philosophy as useful knowledge.

Taylor underscores this point with her choice of imagery. She intercuts her mobile discussions with shots of the larger scenes in which her interviews took place. Her choice of imagery is sometimes obvious, as in a series of shopping bags going by as Singer talks about consumption, and at other times more nuanced, as with shots of people and dogs enjoying a beautiful day at Tompkins Square Park while Avital Ronell questions the impulse to assign meaning to all that we do.

In total, Examined Life shows conversations with: Cornel West on the nature of truth and the courage to examine oneself, Ronell on the limits of meaning, Singer on applied ethics and consumption, Kwame Anthony Appiah on cosmopolitanism, Martha Nussbaum on justice and disability, Michael Hardt on the meaning of revolution in the US, Žižek on ecology, human waste and artificiality, and Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor on disability/impairment and the limits of individualism in America. Each of these segments can be viewed on their own, and read independently, or seen in relationship to each other.

The extras on the Zeitgeist Films DVD include: two “extra walks”, Q & A's with Taylor, West, Appiah, and Ronell at the IFC Center in New York, a theatrical trailer, and biographies and suggested reading for each of the featured philosophers. The printed insert has an interview with Taylor and suggested reading.

The “extra walks” are with Simon Cricthley on a New York rooftop talking about death and Colin McGinn discussing epistemology on a Miami beach. Like most deleted scenes included on DVDs, it isn't hard to see why these were excluded from the final film. Both are more self-consciously artful and staged than the walks that ended up in Examined Life. The question and answer sessions are interesting enough artifacts, especially when Taylor speaks about her project, but are also just snippets of larger conversations that look and sound as if they were shot by people with phones and camcorders in the audience.

In the Q & A with Cornel West, Astra Taylor addresses the question of the accessibility of her film. She responds by saying that she assumes that people will come to it from different “registers”, meaning that some people will know who the philosophers are, and the references they make, and others won't know anything. Some of those will be bored out of their minds, but others will be pulled in despite not being able to fully follow the conversations. In serving this purpose, Taylor's best asset may be her own curiosity, which is evident in the depth of the conversations and the framing of the walks. Examined Life may never find a wide audience, but it will undoubtedly provoke those who are ready to see it, whatever register they view it from.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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