For those of you sitting at your computers reading this review while you’re updating your Facebook page, tweeting about the great dump you just took and watching the auto tune version of “Charlie Bit Me” for the hundredth time, We Live In Public is a movie you should watch immediately. Director Ondi Timoner’s documentary is flat out brilliant and one hell of a ride. The film, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2009, is a stunning audio-visual journey into the mind of Internet visionary, Josh Harris. Haven’t heard of him? You’re not alone (just ask the MySpace guys), but Harris had the foresight back in the early 1980s to see the potential of the Internet and how computers would change the course of mankind. He remained one step ahead of everyone until he lost it all — including, perhaps, his sanity.
Harris’s first business venture was Jupiter Communications, a market research company that projected how people would use the Internet and how powerful a business tool it would become. Surrounded by number crunchers and computer programmers, Harris became a rich man through Jupiter. With an abundance of cash, he began to experiment. First, he created chat rooms for Prodigy and convinced them to let some of the rooms be designated solely for sex talk. Harris later sold the chat platform to Prodigy and made millions. The dot com era had begun and Harris was one of the leading dot com kids.
In 1994, Harris began his next revolutionary project, Pseudo.com, the very first Internet television network. Mixing mediums of music, news, streaming video (albeit, slow speed, constantly buffering video) and online chatting, Pseudo was the beginning of interactive television. To find the on-camera people to populate his creation, Harris threw outrageous raves in New York City. This is how he met Timoner, a fledgling filmmaker at the times. Harris wanted to be an artist himself, but didn’t have the creative tools. Thus, he surrounded himself with artists, allowing them to do whatever they wanted. With Pseudo, Harris strived to be CBS, CNN or NBC, the technology just wasn’t there yet. Making matters more troubling, Harris wasn’t always there himself.
We Live In Public does an excellent job exploring Harris’ alienated childhood and his strained relationship with his family, in particular his mother. Harris states that he loved his mother “virtually, not physically,” as she had a difficult time dealing with her kids. Everything he learned growing up came from sitting in front of a television. At the peak of his success, Harris created a bizarre alter ego, “Lovey,” a sad, blunt clown who could easily speak his mind.
At first people thought it was something Harris was doing just to appear on camera, but when he began showing up to work functions, meeting investors, in the Lovey persona, the others at Pseudo were off put and concerned. Harris eventually sold his Pseudo stock and could have retired a very, very rich man. But that nagging desire to be an artist still ate away at him and he came up with another “experiment.”
This is where the film starts to get really weird. Harris’s idea was an Orwellian project called “Quiet.” He built an underground bunker in NYC where over 100 people lived together (for free) on camera, 24/7, for 30 days. They slept in bunk beds in one large room, each bed equipped with a television and a camera. There was a church, a full service kitchen that gave all the food, booze and drugs they desired. There was a church and a firing range. And there were psychological interrogations that each member of “Quiet” had to undergo. What Harris set out to prove was that people were willing to trade their privacy for connection and recognition. This was in 1999.
After “Quiet” was broken up, Harris’s tried one more experiment: living on camera for six months under 24-hour surveillance, on the Internet, interacting with the people who were watching them. This experiment, which he called “We Live in Public,” ended disastrously when he and his girlfriend had a bitter breakup and Harris had a mental collapse.
What happened next I won’t reveal because I really want you to watch this movie. Let me just say that every time you think Josh Harris is down for the count, he gets back up with another idea he hopes will revolutionize the world. In one sequence, he meets with the guys from MySpace and they have no idea who Josh Harris is and why he wants to meet with them. It’s a comical, yet sad moment. We Live in Public is a film full of such moments.
Director Timoner also helmed the documentary, DiG!, a festival hit and also a Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2004. That film, a rock documentary, followed the career paths of the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. We Live in Public may be about computers and the Internet, but it has the same rock and roll spirit both in pacing and attitude as Timoner’s previous achievement. We Live in Public pops with life; it is funny, poignant and at times infuriating. Like any great rock album, the moment the last note fades out, you want to start it all over again. Moreover, you’ll want to jump right into the special features and learn more about this character, Josh Harris.
Although Timoner’s presence is felt throughout the movie (she narrates and appears on camera a couple of times), she never inserts herself as a central character and never tries to manipulate your feelings. In Harris, Timoner has a larger than life character that provide all of the emotional arcs necessary to provide a compelling and entertaining story.
The DVD is full of great bonus features, including commentary by both Timoner and Harris. The making-of featurettes are quite informative, revealing that Timoner worked on this film for over 10 years, culling it from 5,000 hours of footage. Amazing.
We Live In Public is also available at Amazon Video on Demand.
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