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We Live in Public is a genuinely disturbing documentary about an Internet pioneer and self-described futurist artist who made a splash in New York before being wiped out by the dot-com crash. After predicting and implementing a number of methods by which the budding Internet could be used to support businesses, young Josh Harris caught the first wave of the dot-com gold rush that made dozens of progressive tech brains into instant millionaires. Harris then expanded his vision of a new net-based society by undertaking flashy surveillance-based experiments that were passed off as artistic endeavors. For several years Harris earned ink in top magazines and newspaper supplements, predicting that we would all eventually live on the net and that personal privacy would cease to exist. Independent documentary producer-director Ondi Timoner's nicely-paced docu tells a complicated story in clear terms, keeping the less savory aspects of Harris' nouveau-Warhol world just out of camera range. As Josh Harris' M.O. was to tape and net-cast everything he was doing, Timoner's job may seem easy. But she (or her long list of editorial helpers) had to sift through hundreds of thousands of hours of videotape of Harris' narcissistic "experiments".
The documentary's best aspect is that it gets in close to its subject without openly endorsing his flaky philosophy. Deciding at a certain point that he was an authentic futurist guru and genius, Harris garnered plenty of attention through his innovative web-zine entertainments, all initiated before high-speed broadband. His main company was an Internet television network called Pseudo.com. Using millions of his own profits and that of investors, he then undertook a series of attention-getting, often highly suspect activities.
The first and most notorious was "Quiet", a cultish experiment that assembled a mini-society to live in an enclosed environment where their every activity was videotaped and made immediately accessible to everyone else in the chosen group. Harris advertised for young people willing to stay locked up together in a high-tech Manhattan bunker for more than a month, and ended up recruiting over a hundred extroverts and exhibitionists who needed little encouragement to "behave" for the cameras that recorded their sleeping pods, rec rooms, eating hall, shower and bathroom facilities. Samples are shown of flaky party activities, sex encounters and excremental functions, all occurring "in public". Under an electric sign reading "We Live in Public" Harris let his chosen people do what they will while conducting seemingly random psych "studies" through frequent interrogations by a security expert. The project was called "Quiet" and was timed to span the turn of the century mark. Ms. Timoner shows just enough of the activities to let us know that the free form experiment indeed proves that a pack of obnoxious fame seekers will do anything in front of a camera. The end comes in a welter of cops and fire code officials shutting down the whole freakin' mess.
Not long after this, Harris and a girlfriend (whom he later dismisses as a pseudo-girlfriend) again sought web fame by recording their relationship through constant self-surveillance, with over thirty web cameras installed in their apartment, including a couple in absurdly gross locations. The relationship falls apart on screen, and Harris claims he had a nervous breakdown. What I think we see is just more of the same immature, self-deluded behaviors that accompanied Harris' compulsive striving for cult guru status. Having abandoned his inventiveness in favor of ego trips controlling other people, Harris's early fame disappeared in a cloud of profligate spending: before and after the crash, the Internet was always about making money, and Harris squandered plenty of investor capital.
Demanding to be considered an artist, Harris becomes bored by his projects before they're finished. He's enamored by his ability to manipulate people, bragging how everything he gets on tape in the "Quiet" project has become his property. While pontificating on the effect of video on people's lives, the real dynamic at work is his exploitation of those around him: when things fall apart he throws people away or chases them out, as he does violently in one video clip. Abusing his relationship with the woman who shares six months with him in the web experiment, he later calls the whole thing a fake, his own inspired participation naturally excepted.
Although not proof of Harris's essential shallowness, his interest in the TV phenomenon of Gilligan's Island shows the lack of depth in everything he does. His admirable (?) opportunistic fervor is offset by reams of self-aggrandizing BS and sub-McLuhanesque pronouncements about the meaning of the web revolution. Harris tells us that he's advanced light years beyond Andy Warhol, an entirely laughable claim.
The docu doesn't do a good job relating Josh Harris's activities with the growing popularity of YouTube, MySpace and FaceBook. He rallies one more time with a company that will allow viewers to combine those web destinations in a personalized space, but is roundly rejected by investors. Only a couple of years have passed, but his moment of fame has already evaporated. Those moguls who even remember him need only look up his ruinous financial track record to make a decision.
Ms. Timoner has done her homework. She follows her quarry on his later solo ventures -- running an apple orchard and retreating to Ethiopia, where we see him coaching kids in basketball (unintentional shades of Airplane!, there). A postscript covers his estrangement from former associates and his own family. Timoner begins and ends her show with a video of Josh coldly saying goodbye to his dying mother in a videotaped message after refusing her requests to come to her bedside. Although the tape is offered as a sample of how the Internet will affect future relationships, anybody with even a trace of judgment can see that Harris is simply refusing to own up to any responsibility to anybody, anywhere: he's a sociopath. As for his "curative" adventure in Ethiopia, Harris laughs at the memory that he left the country without paying a local artist who painted a Gilligan-themed picture for him.
We Live in Public is well made and very worth seeing; and the subject is startlingly original. The only drawback is the peripheral participation of Josh Harris. We have to wonder if the show's real purpose isn't to reignite his fame: talking heads keep referring to Harris as a visionary ahead of his time, an assessment contradicted by the evidence on screen. If Harris doesn't mind webcasting his excremental functions, he surely isn't going to be by this unblinking account of his career. Personally, I'd walk a mile to avoid spending money that might end up in his pocket.
Indiepix's DVD of We Live in Public is a good-looking docu. The lowered image quality from some of the surveillance cameras is easily overlooked in the welter of bizarre images, graphic animation and nicely edited montage material. The clear sound makes good use of pop music cues.
The show comes with a battery of extras, including commentaries by Ondi Timoner and "star" Josh Harris. A "making of" featurette is really a career promotional piece by Ms. Timoner, which shows her to be a prime go-getter and a less abrasive self-promoter than Harris. Videotaped remarks by Harris taken from his commentary show him to be even more annoying now than before, still grandstanding for his genius and passing judgment on all and sundry. A couple of shorter pieces concentrate on the technical challenge of wiring the video bunker for the "Quiet" experiment, and the working of Quiet's own self-enclosed gun range. How did Harris get permits for all that high-powered ordnance in the middle of Manhattan, where (I thought) handgun possession was illegal? And why doesn't anyone question why his lofty experiment includes a hefty, promotable "Girls and Guns" component?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
We Live in Public rates:
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