Release Date: Fall 2009
Director: Ondi Timoner
Starring: Josh Harris, Tanya Corrin
Cinematographers: Max Heller, Vasco Nunes
Studio/Run Time: Interloper Films, 90 mins.
Cautionary documentary looks for social media lessons in the story of a dot-com “visionary”
Ondi Timoner has a theory and a metaphor about broadcasting our lives online: it’s gradually driving us insane.
All of this Twittering, blogging, using-of-Facebook-without-a-concise-verb-to-describe-our-actions, is leading to madness, and Timoner’s cautionary example is entrepreneur Josh Harris.
That’s the hook, anyway. But the real excuse for the film is Harris himself—or not even Harris himself, but a project he mounted in New York—whose bizarre results, captured by tons of video, have offered up a bounty of compelling footage. What documentarian could resist?
In the dot-com heyday of the ’90s, Harris made a few million dollars as a founder of Jupiter Research. But then, as Timoner tells the story, he sank his money and energies into indulgent ventures that increasingly reflected his deteriorating psychological state. One was a Web site called Pseudo.com that offered channels of original video programming alongside chat rooms, a kind of web-based TV network. The business fell apart at the end of the boom, but Harris may have begun the descent some time earlier, showing up at company parties and even meetings dressed as an obnoxious clown named Luvvy, much to the dismay of his investors. After Pseudo liquidated its assets, Harris went on to create weliveinpublic.com, an experiment in which he and then-girlfriend Tanya Corrin lived in a house rigged with robotic cameras that broadcast their every move on the web, day and night. Visitors could talk back to Harris and Corrin via chat rooms on the site, and they could uncomfortably take sides during the couple’s arguments. The relationship fell apart. Harris used his remaining funds to buy an apple farm to which he retreated quietly, with only a tarnished reputation and a six-figure credit-card debt to his name.
Timoner documents Harris’ fall, without much info on his rise, using a hyper-kinetic, footage-heavy style similar to her Dandy Warhols / Brian Jonestown Massacre documentary, Dig! She backs into a barely developed idea that links Harris’ stunts with present-day social media, but her primary interest seems to be elsewhere.
More fascinating than anything on the surface are the dueling attempts at revisionist history on the parts of Harris and Timoner. Both are interested in presenting Harris as a visionary, even though he just keeps developing variations of the same failed idea—video plus a chat window—under the mistaken impression that its time will eventually come. But they part ways when they discuss his domestic experiment with his girlfriend. Timoner seems convinced that Harris was in love with Corrin (and his friend Jason Calacanis backs her up), and the film implies that he destroyed a good relationship with techno-mania. But Harris coolly claims he was masterminding a public experiment, foresaw the breakup, and cast Corrin as if she were an actress. Harris and Timoner also differ on the depth of his fall. Timoner seems to see him as a tragic figure, but when he attends screenings of the film, Harris claims that he is in fact the first great artist of the 21st century and that all of these (redundant, repetitive) businesses are parts of an ongoing, life-long art project. Yeah. It’s odd how much the arc of the Harris story mirror the one that Marina Zenovich applies to Roman Polanski’s life in Wanted and Desired; if it weren’t for the loss of his beloved, he might have kept it together.
In truth, the peaks of Harris’ story aren’t as high, and the valleys aren’t as low, as the dramatic noise implies. There’s a precedent for nearly every invention Timoner presents. (Jennicam, for example.) Having spent most of my career working in and around Silicon Valley, I can assure you that the place is covered with the footprints of business flameouts who made and lost millions, maybe not all so brazenly as Harris, maybe not by people who broadcast themselves online or regularly dressed as clowns, but certainly as quickly and definitively, and with nearly as much hubris. It’s one of the dominant stories of the heady ’90s, when the newly commercialized Internet was momentarily unconstrained by economics. It couldn’t last, but at its zenith, the flow of money promoted weird indulgences, best captured by a lengthy section of the film about a Harris-funded project called Quiet.
Quiet actually does seem like an interactive art installation, and it’s the part of the film with the most riveting footage—far more interesting than the unconvincing arc that Timoner applies to Harris’s career, ego, and psyche. For the project, Harris built a bunker in New York, covered it with video cameras, and invited people to drop everything and live inside for a month, with cameras watching and recording everything they do. Everything. It looks like a claustrophobic, microscopic Burning Man, with the notable addition of an overlord who occasionally calls you to an interrogation room to be grilled, one of the project’s more bizarre stipulations.
The spectacle of all those people going nuts inside self-imposed techno-confinement is a fascinating caricature of those heady nineties. It’s not typical of the times, but by highlighting the extremes, the film is a reminder of the era that bred Wired and Burning Man, which are now mostly respectable institutions. But the revelations go further. For instance, we get a glimpse of Ondi Timoner in the footage, identified with onscreen text that doesn’t explain her presence. Was she an attendee or just a journalist? The film doesn’t say, which is an odd detail to omit when your topic is living in public. Is the footage her own, or did Josh own it all, as the film claims? And if he owns it all, was it licensed for this film, and under what terms? Does presenting him as a visionary figure into the equation? Is a vision to help privileged adults cavort like children in a multi-million dollar playground worth celebrating? Harris has a reason to be seen as a visionary, and a reason to be seen as a madman: the more mundane explanation for why someone would pour money down a toilet is too unseemly to make a good story. And if We Live in Pubic, the documentary, leaves viewers with the desire to pull back a bit from the icky extremes of daily lifecasting, I hope it’s because of the indulgence on display and not because it literally makes you crazy.