Sundance Part 10
Posted on Monday January 26, 2009, 10:49 by Damon Wise
When I ran into director Ondi Timoner at the opening party, I asked her how long she was staying in Park City. She told me she'd be there right through to closing night. Why? “'Cause we're gonna win,” she said. And by God they did. Apart from Tom DiCillio's When You're Strange, a very interesting film about LA rockers The Doors, I didn't see a single other documentary among the 22 films I caught there, so I can't compare it with the favourably mentioned The Cove (about dolphin harvesting in Japan) and Afghan Star (about an Afghan Pop Idol star). But her new film We Live In Public is certainly strong. The focus is Josh Harris, the most successful dotcom entrepreneur you've never heard of, and even after 90 minutes in his orbit I still feel that, even though I know who he is now, I actually don't much more about this strange, paradoxical individual. That's not to say Ondi doesn't try to get under his skin, just that Harris is an enigma even to his family (we're talking about a guy who sent a video message to his dying mother; thankfully it arrived after she passed).
We Live In Public is really about two things: a) Harris, how he predicted both the popularity of the internet and the uses it would be put to, and b) us, as consumers of that technology. If Harris was a less smart guy he'd certainly be richer, because after making his initial millions he decided to invest the cash in a string of increasingly bizarre projects. The first one was called Quiet, which saw a huge Manhattan basement being turned into a miniature hotel for a month with no walls or doors. An eerie precursor of the Big Brother house, complete with diary room, it was a much more intense and borderline fascistic endeavour. Everything was filmed (the open-plan bathroom had adjoining toilets), everything was provided free of charge, and from their cosy bedroom pods, inmates could choose from a series of live feeds to see what else was going on in there. Inevitably, the mayor's office got wind of it and sent the cops down to turf everyone out, afraid that Quiet was another millennial suicide cult, like Heaven's Gate, a fear not allayed by the presence of a firing range. As one of the participants put, “We were certainly walking like a duck and quacking like a duck.”
After Quiet, Harris turned the camera on himself and his then-girlfriend, fitting up his loft apartment with dozens of motion-sensitive cameras, a project that saw, at its peak, thousands of online viewers sharing every aspect of their life together. This is one of the more fascinating aspects of the film, and let's just wait to see how long it is before Endemol nicks it for BB: after every row, Harris and his missus would check their inboxes for feedback from viewers as to who was in the right and what to do next. Predictably, the controlling Harris usually came second in this popularity contest. After these two sections, it becomes clear that Harris rather lost his way, if not his mind, after living in public. He's a has-been in the new dotcom age and is struggling to find anyone with deep pockets to fund his crazy ideas. This was the part of the film that puzzled me, because I really didn't have a clue what Harris really wants, or has ever wanted, and immediately after the screening Ondi asked me if I thought it was better than DiG!, her great rock doc about the Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. I didn't know what to say, but it's a tough question to answer because DiG! is a much more instant film and I've seen it so many times (like The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, it's a great comfort movie). We Live In Public is rather more complex, inviting us to chuckle at some of Harris's more hare-brained schemes and then reminding us that Harris was really actually onto something and that there are shades of his supposedly barking-mad brainstorms in our everyday life: how else do you explain the fad for Twittering, or updating Facebook statuses?
Harris went onstage for a Q&A after the screening, and surprised the audience by revealing that he'd never seen the film and probably never will, trusting Ondi to make something artistically valid from the raw materials of his life. That intrigued me and made me re-evaluate all the footage I'd just seen. As with Dig!, but for other reasons, I think I'll end up seeing this provocative doc more than once.