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We Live In Public
Ondi Timoner should be a lot more famous. Her already celebrated career should be cinematically supersized. She should be right up there with Michael Moore, Errol Morris, and any other noted fact filmmakers. Her devastating look at life on the margins of the music business, DiG! , remains a true documentary masterpiece, and her latest lament to the dangers of taking technology too far, We Live in Public, is equally pristine. What makes this movie even more fascinating, however, is Timoner's direct connection to the content. She was part of Josh Harris' Internet experiment, a 24/7 voyeuristic experience known as "Quiet" where dozens of dedicated progressives decided to live their extroverted lives out in the open for a collection of web-based cameras to capture. Over the next few weeks, the test turned tentative, and then terrifying. As the only filmmaker ever to win the top prize at Sundance TWICE, Timoner stands as an important artist. As with DiG! , We Live in Public proves her substantial creative mantle.
Josh Harris was one of those prescient technology entrepreneurs. He made most of his money with 'Pseudo', a company that provided streaming web content as early as 1993. He then took that hunk of cash and turned it on itself, creating the aforementioned "Quiet" as a way of giving the imagined audience exactly what it wanted - more and more of themselves. Things turned ugly rather quickly as a life lived in front of the camera proved overwhelming for more than one participant. But Josh wasn't done yet. When he met and fell in love with Tanya Corrin, he even brought her into his next online brainstorm. Calling it "We Live in Public", Harris had his New York loft fitted with hundreds of recording devices (including one inside of the toilet bowl). The couple then simply went about their daily existence. But as the Dot.com bubble burst and their relationship disintegrated, Josh went from being a media-savvy mad scientist to simply mad...and his eventual self-destruction occurred in real time, for everyone to witness and watch over...and over...and over again.
There is no more insightful or frightening documentary than We Live in Public. Sure, it tells the slightly complicated story of a man who made too much money, who was allowed to indulge in his most personal, perverted technological fetishes, and who almost died by his own obsessed hand. If George Orwell were alive and Googling, this might be his post-modern 1984. Films rarely get to the heart of a harrowing truth as readily as Public and it's perhaps because the director is also a direct descendent of subject Josh Harris' CPU Kool-Aid acid test. She was there when "Quiet" went from fun to frightening, when ego took over and replaced exploration as the reason for being. It also helps that Harris' story is so inherently fascinating. For anyone who grew up with the web, who saw it go from dial-up bulletin boards to slick downloadable high-def movies, seeing this story, the almost supernatural clairvoyance over what the Internet could (and would) becomes - for good and bad - is chilling. It's like looking into a crystal ball and realizing everything it has to say is 250% true...and then some.
For her part, Timoner simply settles in and delivers the spellbinding goods. She uses her skill in editing and approach to illustrate Harris' ambitious aims, his frequently outlandish designs, and his cold hard business sense. She also recognizes those moments when the plotline requires no further editorializing, as when the subject and his gal pal begin to spiral out of control during their precarious "Public" relationship. Timoner is a genius at finding those little details, those hints and highlights which wind up showcasing the psychological depth simmering beneath the surface. While he was relatively closed about himself, hoping that his ideas illustrated his persona more than his everyday personality, Harris can be seen in moments of minor reflection, times when the slightest mount of trepidation and doubt draw lines across his usually smug and superior face. Timoner also makes masterful use of original source and stock footage, a means of adding yet another element to the overall fascination with the era, the rise of the computer, and the seemingly sensible way in which many saw to manipulate and exploit it.
Of course, there is a very dark cloud covering Timoner's take on the construction of the information superhighway, a path of psychosis and self-abuse that makes even the most telling advancement seem like the surreal screams of someone in dire need of some help. Harris is indeed unusual, his financial success seeming to unlock an entire world of weird-ass behavior and beliefs. And it goes beyond casual nudity, circus acts, and despotic demands. Harris appears convinced of his Andy Warhol-like creation, his fame fueled freak show with a modem substituting for a carnival midway. He is Brian Oblivion without the Videodrome mindf*ck. He dives directly headfirst into his most outrageous ideas and fails to fully apologize when they turn nuclear and detonate. For her part, Timoner acts as recorder, involved but still impartial, active and yet passively letting her subject hoist and hang himself on his own pathetic petard. It's easy to see what made Josh Harris and his forward thinking ideas so attractive in the first place. But as We Live in Public argues, looks could be very deceiving, and very destructive, indeed.
Considering the many elements she had to pull from, the difference in quality between modern digital video and old school hand held analog, and the balance between new media and old web tech, the 1.33:1 full screen image here still looks great. Granted, full frame is such an antiquated idea nowadays that it seems almost ironic that the movie is being offered this way, but Timoner's ability as a storyteller is never undermined by the slight scientific spec decision. Indeed, outside of the limited 4x3 artistic perspective, the movie looks very good indeed.
The Dolby Digital Stereo mix does a great job of modulating the dialogue between the onscreen subjects and Timoner's cool and casual narration. The musical choices are also inspired, since they give a real depth and descriptive power to what we see onscreen. If anything, Timoner should be celebrated for how she puts together a story. We are instantly sucked into Josh Harris' unusual domain, and for the most part, don't ever want to leave.
Timoner is the kind of commentator that one could listen to for hours. She is so wise about her own work, so upfront about her perceived problems and filmmaking flaws, that her full length audio discussion on the DVD of We Live in Public almost becomes its own movie in and of itself. Harris also provides a wonderful alternate narrative track. Seeing the movie for the first time, he is far more self-effacing and jokey. He mocks his current fiscal straits and suggests alternative explanations for some of the senseless histrionics we witness. Elsewhere, there is footage of our 'hero' enjoying the film, a making-of with Timoner as well as some backstage material from Sundance. There's also a pair of featurettes which explore the pods and the prevalent guns that were part of the entire "Quiet" experience inside the bunker. Add in a trailer and you have a terrific amount of insightful added content.
As with any classic example of the genre, We Live in Public raises as many troubling questions as it answers. Why did Harris regress into the weird clown persona "Luvvy" while under stress? Why the equally unhinged allure and obsession with Gilligan's Island? Did he really think that something like "Quiet" or "We Live in Public" would really generate significant revenue opportunities, or was this merely a case of a crazy man with too much money and too many people saying "Yes". While the saga seems to have a somewhat happy ending, Harris remains an enigma - albeit one we seem to recognize a whole lot easier. This is why We Live in Public earns an instant Highly Recommended rating. Ondi Timoner seems draw to individuals who confuse arrogance with ambition, who are addicted to the process as much as they are their own ego. There is no denying that Joshua Harris had vision. What he saw, and in turn, what he wanted us to see, makes We Live in Public a great cinematic experience.
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