WE LIVE IN PUBLIC (Dir. Ondi Timoner, 2009)

“This is the story of the greatest internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” So say the opening titles, aptly presented as white on black computer text, of WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, a frenetic and fascinating documentary that’s very concerned with how modern media affects all of our lives. The so called internet pioneer in the spotlight is Josh Harris, a researcher / developer who thrived in the early days of the World Wide Web, became a dot com multi-millionaire then…well, you know what happened to those guys.

Oh, but there’s so much more to the story than that. Harris wanted to go beyond capitalizing on the daily uses of technology; he wanted to perform experiments on a huge interactive level to prove his theories of how this new exciting technology was going to take us over as a society.

Not take us over in a TERMINATOR sense, mind you – though I bet Harris wouldn’t completely rule that out.

Director Ondi Timoner (DiG), who narrates in a nice conversational manner, tells us that like many folks in New York of the 90’s: “I had no idea who Josh Harris was, until I happened into one of his legendary parties.” Cue crazy raw video footage of naked and semi-naked 24 hour party people illuminated by flashing strobe lights while rave music pounds.

Although Harris, dubbed “the Warhol of Web TV” by New York Magazine spent a good chunk of the 90’s advancing webcasting with a company he founded, Pseudo.com, his heart was more into the art of it all.

After leaving Pseudo in late 1999 with his share of the stock, those legendary parties morphed into a large video project called “Quiet: We Live In Public” in which he built a sizable bunker including a Japanese-style capsule hotel under New York City and invited 100 partying artists to live there. Web cams were installed in every room so that every action and utterance could be followed by anybody who had online access.

“Everything’s free except your image. That we own.” Harris proudly declares in the only line that is repeated in the documentary. As you might imagine, this bizarre experiment got way out of hands. People brought in guns, there was a lot of physical conflict, and the police thought it was a “doom cult” (it wasn’t long after the Heaven’s Gate tragedy) so Mayor Guliani finally shuts the whole thing down.

So Harris moves on to his next project. He outfits a New York apartment with webcams in every room and, with his new girlfriend Tanya Corrin, lived there for 6 months. People online could watch them eat (there was a camera in the fridge) have sex, go to the bathroom (yep, a cam in the toilet), bathe, and towards the end – violently argue with tons of people in chat rooms commenting on every detail. Later, after the experiment and their relationship was long over, Harris says that Corrin was a “fake girlfriend…I knew it was going to end in public.” Her disbelieving response to that is a cutting moment.

The dot com bust of 2000 writes the next chapter of Harris’s story. He literally buys the farm – an apple farm in upstate New York and he turns his back on a world where the internet is going to explode exactly in all the ways he predicted. When he tries to get back into that world he finds he isn’t the famous pioneer he thought he was. No matter – he lives in Ethiopia now and says he is plotting his next big art project.

Of all the sharp interview clips throughout, some of the best remarks come from Jason Calacanis – an internet mogul/blogger (and sometime actor) who definitely deserves to get his own career sweeping bio-doc some day.

What’s best about this never tedious half bio-doc/half cultural phenomenon exploration is that Timoner creates a structured and thoughtful piece of art out of the fractured remains of the pile of projects, theories, conceptual conceits of a messy yet stunningly prophetic life. Harris was definitely ahead of his time, but we’ve caught up with him with every “look at me” tweet, profile tweak, and especially every blog posting (wink!), so now that we’re here – what next?

This film won’t, and can’t, answer that, but its insightful intricacies of how we got here, and how we may be in danger of getting lost in cyberspace from one click too many, are among the most deeply penetrating of any social concern documentary out there.

Extra Features: The bonus stuff is fairly typical, but there’s worthwhile separate commentaries by Timoner and Harris. Both are worthwhile, but if you’re going to listen to just one of them – go with Harris’s. He’s watching the film for the first time (“I haven’t even seen the trailer”) so he says some pretty funny things: “I’m between fortunes”, “they say a lot of things about me but no one’s ever accused me of throwing a bad party”, and, my personal favorite: “Andy Warhol – I’m his wet dream.”

More later…

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