Stereograph of the California poppy, Eschocholtzia californica, by George Stone, 1925
So I'm a little young to remember Internet pioneer Josh Harris, but I do remember the "Dot-Com Kids" and the hysteria of the late '90s tech boom that surrounded them. When I read about the new documentary We Live in Public about Josh Harris, my interest in the subject matter was minimal. When I saw that it was an Ondi Timoner project, though, my interest level shot way up. Being a music guy, Timoner's Dig! is one of my favorite documentaries, in spite of the fact that, before seeing the film, I had an aversion to its subject, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, who I had previously dismissed as unfocused nu-psych poseur-provocateurs. If anything, Dig! affirmed this view of the band but showed that there was something interesting going on in their music as well.
My view on documentaries has always been that the quality of the final project is almost always directly related to the amount of raw footage available. With both Dig! and We Live in Public, Timoner has had huge amounts of footage to work with, and she has a talent for crafting a narrative arc by finding the definitive moments captured on tape and sequencing them to create an engaging story and an emotional connection. I marveled at the footage Timoner had of Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe kicking a fan in the face from the stage during a gig, but that moment pales in comparison to some of the best moments of Josh Harris's bizarre life found in We Live in Public.
Here's a shortish summary of the career arc of Josh Harris and why anyone would make a movie about him. Growing up in a home with an absentee father and emotionally absent mother, Josh was raised by his TV and was intensely interested in human relationships filtered by technology at an early age. He studied networking and the development of the Internet starting in the 1980s, and by the '90s he was running Jupiter Communications, supposedly the first Internet-focused marketing group. He started Pseudo.com, an Internet TV network that streamed video and had interactive chat features long before bandwidths and connection speeds made such a thing feasible, and by 1999 he was worth 80 million dollars. He was at the epicenter of the New York dot-com kids scene with the other twenty-something Asberger's-Syndrome millionaires.
In 1999, Harris decided to use his millions to conduct a social experiment on the subject of filtered relationships that he called "Quiet". He invited one hundred artists to come live in an underground bunker in NYC where food and lodging would be free. Participants just had to agree to being filmed 24/7. The bunker was structured like a cult compound, with a "chapel" where announcements were made from a pulpit by Josh Harris, huge dorms with metal bunks containing video cameras and close-circuit monitors, a firing range with hundreds of weapons, and communal showers (with video cameras, of course). After one month, the situation in "Quiet" started to deteriorate rapidly and the police shut it down on January 1, 2000.
At this point, Harris decided to start a second project called "We Live in Public", where he and his girlfriend Tanya would live in an apartment with cameras in every room so that they could be watched on the Internet at any time. Surprisingly, this didn't work out well - being watched at all times turned out to be unhealthy for Josh and Tanya's relationship and she moved out after a month. After this, Josh had a nervous breakdown (at the same time as a financial breakdown that happened as he lost all his money in the dot-com bubble burst) and left NYC for good. He bought an apple farm and lived in isolation for a time. When technology finally caught up with his ideas and online social networking started to become a legitimate business (c. 2007), Harris took another run at getting a tech company going, but the big players (Facebook, Myspace, Google) were not interested in working with him and he suffered another financial collapse. At this point, Harris decided to get away from it all ("it" being his creditors) by moving to Ethiopia where he lives now.
That's where the film ends. I admit that I felt emotionally ravaged at the end of it, having watched some pretty difficult footage (the raw footage of "Quiet" is particularly rough to watch), and I felt enough of an affinity for Josh Harris that it hurt to watch his life disintegrate on screen. But, as a weird surprise, Ondi Timoner brought Josh Harris up on stage with her after the film to do a Q&A, where he happily answered questions about his life in Ethiopia and his plan to start a project with Microsoft in the near future. He hopes to make some money that will allow him to work on new large-scale installation art projects. Timoner obviously didn't make We Live in Public to help Josh Harris, though - his life as presented in the film raises a lot of interesting questions about social networking, the Internet, and the filtering of social interactions that is swiftly becoming the norm in how we deal with each other. She's made another heart-wrenching, thought-provoking documentary about a damaged dreamer, and I think it's an unqualified success. I just hope she has enough footage (or the ability to get her hands on some) to make another documentary of this kind.
Here's "Head On" by the Jesus & Mary Chain, which is used to great effect in We Live in Public. In her Q&A, Timoner said that some songs will be pulled from the film after the Festival because it will cost too much to get the rights once the movie's getting wider distribution, so the version of the film we saw is likely to differ from what others will see.
"Head On" by the Jesus & Mary Chain