This documentary is so good, when Judge Erich Asperschlager saw it, he twittered his blog.
"Everything is free, except the video that we capture of you. That we own."
Chances are, unless you had an ISP connection capable of watching streaming video in 1998, or were part of the e-elite prior to the dotcom bust, you've never heard of internet pioneer, visionary, and egotist Josh Harris. Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timonsen hopes to change all that. Culled from some 5,000 hours of footage shot over more than a decade, her latest film, We Live In Public, tells Harris's bizarre story—and proves that the truth really can be stranger (much stranger) than fiction.
Facts of the Case
As early as 1984, Josh Harris saw the potential of the World Wide Web. He used that vision to make a fortune through his research firm, Jupiter Communications, then Pseudo.com, the first internet television network, in the '90s. At a time when all it took to get rich was an idea and the ability to set up a modem, Harris was right in the middle of the easy money, parties, and decadence the New York arm of the dotcom boom offered.
Although he recognized the power of the Web, Josh Harris also became convinced that humanity's online future would take it to a scary place, where individuality would be replaced by mass consciousness, and privacy willingly relinquished for the promise of fame. To illustrate his convictions, he spent $2 million of his own money to turn a Manhattan building into an Orwellian compound for an experiment/art installation called "QUIET: We Live in Public."
To bring his art installation/futuristic compound to life, Harris hired artists to design the various parts of the experiment, from the sleeping "pods" where everyone slept, to the dining area, bar, chapel, open showers, interrogation room, and automatic weapon firing range—all wired with cameras that captured everything, and monitors where everyone could watch. QUIET attracted all manner of New York performance artists, musicians, and filmmakers, eager to give up their privacy to live 24/7 in front of Harris's cameras for the month leading up to January 1, 2000. They spent those 30 days living in unabashed freedom, screwing, shooting, showering and making art in full view of everyone else.
After the bizarre experiment was shut down by the New York police and fire departments, Harris started another project. He convinced his live-in girlfriend to put motion-tracking cameras throughout their apartment and to stream every moment of their lives to their web site. For several months, they slept, ate, showered, and made love in front of the cameras, taking time in between to chat live with everyone who watched.
Then, the dotcom boom turned to bust, and Josh Harris found himself out of money and out of a relationship. Nearly ten years later, We Live In Public shows just how ahead of the curve, and how right, Harris was.
Filmmaker Ondi Timoner won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for documentary back in 2004 with DiG!, a music film that she started work on back in the mid-'90s. At the same time she was working on that movie, she met up with Josh Harris and started gathering footage for what ended up being another Grand Jury Prize winner: We Live In Public.
We Live In Public isn't a history of the internet. It doesn't document the earliest beginnings of the world wide web (though it does show us those days through the eyes of a man who knew its potential). It doesn't detail the transition from dial-up modem to broadband connections (although the story of Pseudo.com, the first internet TV network, shows just how necessary that transition was). And it doesn't profile the creators of social media powerhouses like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter (though we do see just how closely Josh Harris's extreme exercises in public living foretold the world of photostreaming, status updates, and video sharing we currently live in). We Live In Public isn't about the history of the internet; it's about a man who saw it coming before just about everyone else.
Public depicts Josh Harris as a performance artist who works in the medium of bits and bytes. He made his fortune as an analyst and programmer, predicting the ascendance of the World Wide Web, then lost that fortune warning people of its dangers.
Timoner was brought in to document Harris's first project, "QUIET: We Live in Public." She did not know then what the experiment, or the footage she captured, meant. A decade later, however, we can see that Harris's pricey art project was eerily prescient. Thanks to the internet, we live more publicly than ever. Whether or not we are as falsely free as Harris's jumpsuited inmates is open to debate, but he was certainly on to something.
The QUIET story is chilling, arresting, and easily the highlight of We Live In Public, but had Timoner gone ahead with her original plan to cut the bunker footage as a finished documentary, it probably would have been the record of a bizarre social experiment and nothing more. By continuing to film and record interviews well after the bunker project ended, she was able to place it in the context of Harris's life and career—a far more compelling story.
Josh Harris is tough to pin down. He spent millions on elaborate experiments, yet calls a crudely animated CGI piece made early in his career, called "Launder My Head," the most important thing he's ever done. He is constantly trying to rewrite his own history—to explain and justify his actions in ways that don't always seem to match what we see. Timoner has the difficult job of making him relatable. Harris doesn't like to let others get close to him. He seems at times to work against himself, and against those he is in business with. He all but forced himself out of Pseudo.com by insisting on making public appearances as a freaky clown alter-ego named "Luvvy." He played puppetmaster with QUIET's residents, then allowed the project to be shut down by authorities—a "surprise" bust he takes credit for instigating. Most bizarrely, he claims that his public relationship with girlfriend (and former Pseudo host) Tanya Corrin was completely fake. Tanya explains his rewriting their personal history as a defense mechanism triggered by their break up. Timoner has her own ideas about what is true and false, but Harris is so charming in his defense it's hard to know anything for sure.
That ambiguity is the reason We Live In Public works. Josh Harris realized early on that the rise of the internet would give way to a world where we all become voyeurs. This film plays right into that prophecy. As artfully as Timoner presents Harris's story, you get the feeling that he's watching us watching him and laughing. Although Timoner agrees with Harris's dire warnings about the future, she seems to temper his fatalism with the belief that as long as we are aware of how much of ourselves we trade to participate in wired culture, we can avoid becoming mindless automatons.
Timonsen doesn't just rely on the many interviews she filmed with Harris over the course of their partnership. She knows better than to let him write his own story. She also includes interviews with people who know Harris—people like internet entrepreneur-extraordinaire Jason Calicanis (who provides some of the best insights about his old friend), Harris's brothers, co-workers from Pseudo, and the various performance artists, directors, and musicians who took part in his experiments.
It's a credit to Ondi Timonsen that she was able to wrest the film away from Josh Harris and make it a legitimate work of art in itself. A lot of careful thought went into the way We Live In Public was put together. With the help of editor Josh Altman, Timonsen's film captures the feel of the late 1990s. Timonsen decided to set her film in full frame rather than widescreen to bolster the feeling of TV voyeurism. It works. The 2.0 stereo mix fits that last-century vibe, and more than handles Public's killer soundtrack. While not all of the artists who ended up in the movie have the '90s cred of bands like Jesus and Mary Chain and Jane's Addiction, all of the music (including tracks by David Bowie, Spoon, and Sigur Ros) underscores the cycle of internet boom to bust during which Harris did most of his work.
If this DVD was only the 89 minutes this film lasts, I would recommend you at least rent it. Thanks to the disc's impressive slate of extras, We Live In Public moves into must-buy territory. Most of the bonus features are your typical mix of deleted footage and promotional films, including a couple of looks "Inside the Bunker," a director profile, behind the scenes at Sundance, and a theatrical trailer. They are all interesting and worth watching, but they are only appetizers for the two-course feast of audio commentaries, one recorded by Timonsen, and one recorded by Josh Harris himself.
The Ondi Timonsen commentary is a model of what a director's commentary should be. It's insightful, full of backstory and production details, and also peppered with juicy tidbits about the people who appear in the film (much of it about Harris). Timonsen is a thoughtful, passionate filmmaker, and a joy to listen to.
Josh Harris's commentary is just as fascinating, but for entirely different reasons. It was recorded the first time Harris actually saw We Live In Public. Even though he took part in publicity and appeared at screenings, he'd refused to watch the film. As a result, we get to hear the gut reactions of a guy who always says what he thinks. He argues with the screen, taking his brothers to task for things they say about his childhood. He goes out of his way to explain just how his relationship with Tanya was faked. He is unwavering in his vision of our online destiny. Even while he's talking trash about competitors, he's disarming and utterly engrossing. He may be lying; he may be telling the truth. Who cares? Like him or hate him, Josh Harris was part of one of the most important sea changes in human history, and his commentary is one of the best I've heard in years.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Harris's commentary is so good, apparently, that the people who made this DVD decided it needed its own trailer. Among the extras is something called "Josh Watches Film for First Time (Highlights)," which is just video of Harris recording the commentary. I'm not sure why it's here. Just listen to the commentary instead.
I hope you watch We Live In Public. Nothing I write about it can compare with experiencing it for yourself. It's surprising, revealing, and makes me more than a little scared for our future. Ondi Timonsen's film is helped by the fact that Josh Harris is one-of-a-kind. Still, documentaries like this remind us that the best stories often come not out of one person's imagination, but from the unpredictability of real (or virtual) life.
Not guilty. But I guess Josh Harris knew that already.
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