Review of We Live in Public
by Leo Goldsmith
Not Coming to a Theater Near You
Ondi Timoner’s last documentary, Join Us, picked over the perversions of an abusive church cult in South Carolina; her first major film DIG!, about The Brian Jonestown Massacre, documented as much sex, drugs, and idiocy (especially the latter two) that one can reasonably expect from a rock band with a renowned proclivity for heroin. We Live in Public, her new film about forgotten internet pioneer, New Media mogul, and sometime “cyber kid” Josh Harris, is kind of a hybrid of the two, equally a documentary about group-think control and unbridled, child-like idiocy. And curiously, it finds that these two seeming opposites are not quite so contradictory, after all.
Indeed, Josh Harris and BJM’s Anton Newcombe are both overgrown children and precocious geniuses (or “geniuses”) in very ways, but each doggedly, even pathologically pursues his ends with a nearly superhuman extravagance and degree of hubris. Of course, the primary difference between the two is that Harris became massively wealthy in doing so—before he imploded and became massively in depth. Gradually building an internet media empire while the world was still dialing-up and buffering, Harris soon aspired to be what one interviewee describes as “the Andy Warhol of the Internet,” attracting diverse, off-the-wall talent to host shows at his trailblazing Web TV-station Pseudo.com, wooing wealthy, bubble-minded investors, and openly menacing Viacom during his 60 Minutes profile.
In many ways, Harris’s achievement was the result of an astonishing prescience—in the future, he augured, people would watch TV, communicate with one another, and essentially live their lives on the internet, and although there did not yet exist the technology to do all this, Harris and his empire forged ahead anyway. (An early digitally animated video piece by Harris entitled “Launder My Head” shows a group of people with monitors for heads chanting things like “Come form with us” as they dance in digital lockstep, à la Ally McBeal’s atrocious dancing baby, in an austere, blocky landscape that uncannily resembles “Second Life.”) But of course, Harris was also lucky (or, arguably, unlucky), a recalcitrant, socially stunted kid with a bit of vision, a lot of computer-savvy, and an odd predilection for Gilligan’s Island, who simply found himself in the right place at the right time.
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