Overdosing on Reality

We Live in Publicis the rare documentary film whose tapping of the American zeitgeist feels downright supernatural. Just weeks after director Ondi Timoner’s cautionary tale for the Facebook era won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, online social network usage in the United States came to surpass that of e-mail, as millions of chickling Twitterers joined the flock while a few stodgy op-editorialists wondered–in print–whether virtual friendship counted the same as the real kind, whether popularity, measurable in clicks, mattered more than privacy.

Timoner started shooting her topical documentary in 1999, which makes its subject–oddball web pioneer Josh Harris–look not merely visionary but frighteningly so. “One day,” Harris predicted a decade ago, “we’re gonna wake up and realize we’re all just servants.”

Some social networkers will say Harris should speak for himself, particularly since his form of servitude appears in the film to be a specialized case. Indeed, not every man-child in America is so beholden to technology that he sends best wishes to his dying mother via video, as Harris does in We Live in Public‘s chilly opening scene. This virtual greeting card is the way of the future, insists Harris, whom Timoner characterizes throughout the film as a trailblazer of unsettling proportions. After founding Pseudo
.com, an early online TV station, Harris matter-of-factly tells a 60 Minutes interviewer that he’s bucking to bring down CBS. Later he calls himself “one of the first great artists of the 21st century,” which isn’t as obnoxious as it sounds once Timoner’s film gives us a harrowing glimpse into two of Harris’ most provocative projects.

“Quiet” (1999) and WeLiveinPublic.com (2001) were rigged experiments to prove that a tech-powered lack of privacy would turn people into zombies or worse. By the time New York City police officers shut down “Quiet,” an underground hotel with 24-hour surveillance and a gun range, its dozens of residents, forced to remain indoors for a month, had become Clockwork Orange-style party animals, and their host had begun the downward spiral that would eventually find him clinically depressed and stripped of the $80 million he’d grabbed during the dot-com boom.

Harris’ sequel, WeLiveinPublic.com, was a kind of Bodybook page wherein Harris and his girlfriend Tanya Corrin used 30-odd video cameras to lay their domestic partnership bare online. Watching these unnerving scenes in We Live in Public, one can hardly blame Corrin when she decides to flee her life of high-tech surveillance, which at times looks a lot like ordinary domestic abuse.

Timoner, a “Quiet” resident (or captive?) herself, sifts through thousands of hours of footage to portray Harris’ Manhattan hotel and apartment as sites of futuristic depravity, equally awesome and apocalyptic. With its rows of bunk-bed cubicles strung together with monitors and cameras, its 80-foot-long banquet table and wide-open communal showers, “Quiet” is a disturbingly believable metaphor for the up-all-night Internet. When his sizable guest list runs for cover in the wee hours of the new millennium, Harris endeavors to throw a more intimate party and succeeds, particularly when, at the bitter end of WeLiveinPublic.com, he’s all alone.

Much as We Live in Public functions as an abbreviated history of the Internet, the film is also a laser-sharp biography of a man who seems to have been bred from infancy to become the Warhol of the web. The young Josh Harris lived in private, taught by his mom to “fend for yourself” in the kitchen and breastfed on the boob tube. Gilligan, the Skipper, and Lovey were Harris’ real family. Thus Timoner’s portrait of the webmaster as weirdo gets us thinking along chicken-and-egg lines: Does the Internet damage humanity, or does it mainly obsess those who are already damaged?

Timoner, who Twitters from the festivals where We Live in Public has been playing, believes the virtual world has begun to dominate the real one–inevitably, but not necessarily for the better.

“It’s a very human instinct to not want to be alone,” the documentarian recently told blogger Melissa Tuckman. “It goes a step further with fame: We see fame and celebrity as being happy and never being alone. Now we put ourselves out there on the Internet to try to get attention.”

We live in public, yes. But if we identify with Josh Harris, it’s the kind of recognition that comes with a shudder. Scarier than any monster movie, We Live in Public might even send some of us offline. For 15 minutes.

We Live in Public is awaiting U.S. distribution. A fall release is planned.

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