We Live in Public (2009) dir. Ondi Timoner
By Alan Bacchus
At the top, the subject of this documentary, Josh Harris, is billed as "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of," a statement that struck me as odd, as it purports to tell us exactly the point of the film we're about to see. After this, director Ondi Timoner quickly throws us into the wild and chaotic life of this "pioneer," a nerdy bookworm raised on '60s television shows like Gilligan's Island, who then got in on the first floor of the murky concept called "the internet" in the early '80s. After some shrewd business dealings, Josh found himself a multi-millionaire at a young age.
Harris is portrayed as the king of these geeks, squandering his millions in an effort to create an Andy Worhol-like persona as a performance artist. His first high-profile concept — a month-long commune locking dozens of oddball conceptual artists in a building, capturing every movement and action on cameras, and streamed and broadcast over the internet — comes off as a sometimes fascinating but mostly pretentious art experiment. Eventually, when it threatened to become its own version of Das Experiment or Lord of the Flies, it was appropriately shut down by the police.
Harris's second venture further explored his obsession with privacy — his own personal Truman Show — putting himself and his girlfriend on camera 24-7, the effect of which destroyed his relationship and sent him into bankruptcy and self-imposed exile. Timoner expertly portrays Harris as a prototypical artist of the new millennium, a forward thinking nerd experimenting with the foetus of a medium.
At the same time, the film captures the fervour of the late '90s internet boom and the over-hyped feeling of euphoria exalted upon the dotcom kids. Harris's ventures, such as the Pseudo.com network, which he proclaimed would take over CBS one day, is typical of the high enthusiasm but low value ideas that floated around the internet in those days. So, in many ways Harris is a mixture of Andy Worhol and Howard Hughes, with as many anti-social eccentricities as those pioneers.
By the end, I couldn't get that opening statement out of my head, which is off-putting, disrespecting the audience's ability to make that determination themselves. In fact, the film works best as a counterpoint to the statement. Harris's fall from the high mountain of internet superstrata to the obscurity where he finds himself today is the greatest statement. So is Josh Harris really an "important" internet pioneer if no one's ever heard of him? Was Timoner being ironic about this statement?
The DVD features two audio commentaries, one with Timoner and one with Harris, both of which seem redundant. But in the context of Harris's lifelong obsessions with filming and watching himself, this could also be seen as part of his great artistic scheme.