Flickr and Facebook have nothing on the social networking experiments of pioneering Internet guru Josh Harris, whose ingenious and unsettling exploits fall under documentarian Ondi Timoner’s penetrating gaze in “We Live in Public.” Like Timoner’s “DIG!,” this astounding new docu burrows into the thin and darkly funny spaces between artistry and vanity, isolation and community, collaboration and exploitation, sanity and madness. Although the Warhol-esque Harris may put off some viewers infuriated (or intimidated) by his immodest brilliance and borderline sadism, others will be turned on by a provocative pic that deserves an audience as expansive as MySpace.
Timoner, a bright young docu talent, seems to share the obsessive artistic methods of her eccentric subjects, including the dueling pop icons of “DIG!” “We Live in Public,” edited for maximum pulse-quickening by Timoner and Josh Altman, is culled from thousands of hours of footage collected over a decade. Some of this material was originally captured by Harris, a compulsive videographer who suffered a nervous breakdown at the tail end of his own wired “Truman Show” — the 24-hour-a-day multicam Internet broadcast of his stormy relationship with live-in g.f. Tanya Corrin.
“Public” also makes extensive, bone-chilling use of Harris’ other major work: the late-1999 New York underground hotel-cum-performance space that, complete with surveillance cameras, interrogation rooms and live gun range, he operated under the name “Quiet.” Officials shut it down in the first hours of the new millennium.
Timoner’s portrait of the visionary Harris grounds his main theme — that humanity will soon become a race of gadget-obsessed, agoraphobic zombies — in the artist’s own lonely, TV-saturated ‘60s childhood. But the viewer’s sympathy for Harris often is strained by his use of friends as virtual-reality guinea pigs.
Some will feel that just desserts have come to the control-freak streaming-video innovator who squandered an $80 million fortune on bacchanalian “aphrodisiac parties” and ill-advised business decisions as the dotcom bubble burst. (Harris, aside from venturing to Sundance, has been in semi-seclusion for the better part of a decade.)
An intensely immersive, even draining film, “We Live in Public,” which doubles as a short history of the Internet, is technically tops on every level — including its volume. Much of the film is set to an ear-splitting cacophony of moody pop-rock, as befits a character as loud and abrasive as Harris.
Pic’s end credits find Harris thanking fellow art-pranksters Marcel Duchamp and Ray Johnson, who might well have appreciated his prescient vision of the virtual world run amok.