“People are willing to do stupid and dangerous and horrible things in exchange for fame,” says journalist Gabriel Snyder, in acclaimed director Ondi Timoner’s newest documentary We Live In Public, “and Josh is driven by that quest more than most people I know.” The Josh Snyder is speaking of is Josh Harris, the unconventional visionary at the center of We Live in Public and the “stupid and dangerous and horrible things” he is speaking of are well explored in Timoner’s explosive and nearly unbelievable film recounting Harris’ various exploits in the late ’90s and early ’00s – the kinds of exploits that only the remarkably rich can engage in. And thanks to his vision and keen foresight at the dawn of the internet, Josh Harris was remarkably rich at the turn of the century.

At the center of Timoner’s film, which is more or less a biography on the life and times of an idiosyncratic entrepreneur (Harris), are two bold experiments examining what the increasing role of technology in our lives does to our privacy and our personal lives. In the first, a bizarre projected dubbed “Quiet,” Harris spends upwards of $2 million to house 100 people in an underground bunker in New York City for the last 30 days leading up to the turn of the century. Now, housing 100 people in a bunker doesn’t sound all that bizarre, but the truly ground breaking part of the project is that the 100 participants were being filmed at all times (eating, sleeping, showering, and even in the bathroom). Each bed (or “pod” as they are called) is equipped with a display monitor and a video camera so that at any time any other person can watch and communicate with you on your “channel.” Still, this doesn’t sound that bizarre, right? In addition to the constant filming and utter removal of privacy, Harris also added in a firing range (stocked with an assortment of semi-automatic weapons to make any NRA member drool), a mock temple, and an interrogation room where an interrogation artist trained by the CIA attempted to mentally sabotage members of the group with demanding interrogations. Needless to say, the results are a bit disturbing.

The second experiment, “We Live In Public”, is a more subdued project in which Harris and his then-girlfriend installed cameras throughout their apartment and attempted to live in full view of the world at all times. What begins as an almost romantic endeavor by a loving couple ends in disaster and eventually leads to Harris undergoing a mental breakdown.

Throughout the film, Timoner uses segments of interviews from various friends and family of Harris to highlight his unique persona. From sending his mother a videotape of himself rather than physically going to visit her on her death bed to his escapades as Luvvy the Clown (a topic you must see to believe), it’s clear that Harris has a unique outlook on life. Often called the “Warhol of the Web” – a nickname that he scoffs at in the special features, claiming instead that “I’m Andy Warhol’s wet dream!” Harris is often off-putting but never boring.

After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year for We Live In Public, (and previously with 2004’s Dig!) Ondi Timoner is now the only director to ever win this prize twice. We Live In Public is a stirring documentary that speaks to the direction our society is heading in a visceral fashion without feeling demanding or pedagogical. Instead, Timoner relies on the vivid life of Josh Harris (and a few brief discussions of the pervasive nature of MySpace and Facebook culture) to paint a clear picture of the direction we are currently pointing in. Similar to virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier’s manifesto You Are Not a Gadget, Timoner’s film warns of a future when technology consumes us.

As the credits roll, the lyrics to the memorable 1996 Jamiroquai hit “Virtual Insanity” play in the background. And in this context, the lyrics begin to take on an entirely clearer meaning than ever before:
The future’s made of virtual insanity, now
Always seem to be governed by this love we have
for useless twisting of our new technology
Oh now there is no sound, for we all live underground

Though the Academy Award nominations for Best Documentary film have already been revealed to be lacking Timoner’s film, We Live In Public is easily one of the best documentaries of 2009.

Zach’s Rating: A
Perfect For: Those longing to see a documentary that does more than simply state an opinion
Stay Away if: You’re not interested in the dynamic history of the web as we know it

To purchase We Live In Public, visit Amazon

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