We Live In Publicrecommended viewing

See, we're all fascinating
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2009
Director: 
Ondi Timoner
Starring: 
Josh Harris, Tom Harris, Tanya Corrin
The Setup: 
Documentary about Internet visionary and all-round crazy guy.
Discussion: 

This is a documentary about, as the opening title reads: “The greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” This is Josh Harris, who moved to New York City in 1984, where he started working for a tech company. One day some guy gave a fairly tepid presentation on what would become email, and Harris recognized it for what it would become. He went to work at early Internet company Prodigy and invented a chat platform for them. The movie doesn’t dissuade you from thinking that Harris INVENTED chat as we know it, but I’m not sure it’s quite so simple. Then the Internet boom happened, with tech agencies springing up all over Manhattan, and many people in their twenties becoming overnight millionaires. The other thing is that those who were once nerds were suddenly the cool people and celebrities. This part was a little weird for me, since I myself was at a hip Internet agency just before the bubble burst, in one of the cool offices we see here and attending some of the “cool” parties as shown here [though obviously not the coolest ones]. Let me assure you I did not become an overnight millionaire. Or an over-decades millionaire. Two issues in the background of all this are: 20-year-olds may be sudden CEOs, but don’t necessarily know how to run a business with all its boring legal and policy problems, and people who have been nerds their entire lives may or may not be able to handle sudden money and fame. Nevertheless, this is what happened.

So in 1994 Harris left Prodigy and created Pseudo, which was a whole Internet TV network with chat bound in… so you could watch all these crazy kooky shows, some of which apparently featured nudity, and chat about it at the same time. They had their own studio and it looks as though pretty much anyone deemed cool enough could get their own show, and it looks like they had some crazy parties. Harris was on 60 Minutes at the time and you see him telling the journalist that his goal is to put networks like CBS out of business, and have everyone move to Internet TV. You can also start to notice the wide-eyed but unseeing look in Harris’ eyes, and hear him say things like “We’re in the business of programming people’s lives.” One also gets the impression that Harris was not exactly the most charming person to get to know, as he will casually dismiss someone with lines such as “There’s a new boy in town. He’s called technology.” I actually heard people say many things like that, during the days when “digital” was inherently good and the Internet was going to cure cancer any second now. Ah, this movie is taking me back.

We now slow down for a flashback as to how Harris grew up. Apparently he was physically frail, and so his siblings remained a little hands-off, and we hear that he grew up literally doing nothing but watching TV. His older brother says he doesn’t remember one friend of Josh’s, he just watched TV. Harris was and is obsessed with Gilligan’s Island, and says that Sherwood Shwartz [creator of the show] was the creator of Harris’ identity and way of viewing the world. Now Harris was starting to view himself as somewhat of a performance artist, and creates a semi-drag/semi-clown character called Luvvy [after Harris’ mother and Mr. Howell’s wife on Gilligan] that he would conduct business, attend parties and make presentations in. Luvvy, to put it mildly, DID NOT go over, and for a while you sense the struggle between Harris’ clients, who think he’s gone bonkers, and Harris’ unwillingness to give it up and accept that no one liked the idea.

So during the Internet boom you had big, established companies knowing they HAD to get online, yet having no idea how to do it, so they just threw MILLIONS at these small companies. And when the bust happened [later, in 2001], it was discovered that many of the Internet companies had burned through those millions just trying to stay afloat [because they had no business skills, as noted earlier] and finally had to close. Pseudo had blown through millions of dollars, but the fact is that broadband was still years away, and only a very select group of people were even able to watch it if they wanted to. It went bust.

Then Harris has the idea for a project called Quiet: We Live in Public, in which he will create an underground bunker in NYC, and fill it with video cameras filming and recording everything 24/7, which can be watched by anyone else in the bunker, or anyone outside, on the Internet. People would sleep in small pods just big enough for themselves. There would be communal showers and bathrooms, free food, abundant free drugs, and a shooting range with a wide variety of real guns. GUNS. Volunteers coming to live there would sign away their rights to any of the video collected of them, were not allowed to leave or have any contact with the outside world, and periodically would have to go to interrogation, where a guy would brutally interrogate them while an armed guard stood in the background, and would occasionally discharge his weapon just to keep them on their toes.

Okay, let’s digress from what’s presented in the movie, and let me give you my personal view of what’s going on here—which may or may not be true, it’s just MY interpretation from my 12 years in New York, and time I've spent in Internet companies here. In the 90s Giuliani was mayor and made NYC safe. Then Disney took over Times Square and made it clean and safe and edgeless. Then Seinfeld and later Sex and the City came on, and EVERYONE who had the money wanted to move to NYC and experience the New York life—JUST like they saw on those shows! This discussion continues in one direction to talk about how the city has become all about yuppies and everything here is now all about “luxury,” but we’re going to split off into a sub-direction: a great many young people who want to experience the “New York life” and who, in many cases, are hoping to make it in a “cool” creative field like writing or art or design or whatever, and a lot of these people are pursuing these things because they, psychologically, need a great deal of attention. They simply could never have a common job, like common people. So it seems that NYC’s hip and artsy downtown crowd of the late 90s was DYING to get into Harris’ bunker and be filmed around the clock, and although the movie never says anything like this, I’LL say it: These people are the narcissists OF THE narcissists. As one of them later says: “See, we’re all fascinating. And we’re fascinating for people to watch on television.”

SPOILERS > > >
So they all get locked in! An while I’m sure to some people it just looks amaaaaazing, to me it looked like a nightmare scenario. Everyone is acting out for the cameras, wearing costumes, doing impromptu fashion walks on the dining room table, pissing, shitting and showering for anyone who tunes in to see. Having sex, despite being aware others can watch on TV, and later having sex in front of their actual pod-mates. The atmosphere looks like a constant nightclub party, where the partygoers occasionally go downstairs and shoot real guns in the gun range, and occasionally go to the interrogation room, where they are picked apart psychologically for the benefit of those watching.

It goes on almost a month. People talk of starting to find the experience disorienting and alienating. One of them says “The more you get to know each other the more alone you become.” We see all the people starting to look a little wild-eyed and crazy, the parties get more out of control, we see people weeping and hiding, getting angry at the cameras in their faces. We see a man nude man dragging a woman into the shower and throwing her around and ripping her clothes off in a way that doesn’t quite look like full rape but definitely isn’t “okay.” It’s times like this that you become aware that you only have the footage the director decides to show you—and around now it’s hard to know if we’re seeing the worst of the worst in order to shape a narrative or just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t know how long it was all supposed to go on, but the cops shut it down on January 1st, 2000. By that time Harris was said to be bored of it all, and we see him shoving people out the door, telling them get out, without a second to listen to what they want to say to him.

Then Harris decided to do another phase of his project, wiring his apartment so that every inch is covered by cameras and available on the Internet, and inviting his girlfriend Tanya to move in with him. She was a former host on Pseudo, and I think it’s very significant that she is Harris’ first and only girlfriend. It also may be significant, depending on how you read such things, that they had a camera installed in the bottom of the toilet, looking UP. Things go well at first, as they often do, and the couple can do something and instantly have viewers from the outside world make comments on it. Tanya can ask the cameras where she left her wallet, and have them tell her. Tanya says when it started she was “behind the project 100%,” and Harris later says “The way I grew up, you were legitimized by having a camera turned on you.” Anyway, as you can guess, after a month of bliss Josh and Tanya become alienated from each other, stop speaking, and fight. They both describe how when you are being watched constantly, you aren’t IN the fight—you’re trying to score points that your viewers will admire. They both describe having a fight, then rushing over to the computer to see the comments. You’ll notice a large Gilligan poster in the background of the apartment [below]. Eventually [after another semi-rape] Tanya leaves, and Harris finds his solo viewership goes way down—an additional heartache after having your girlfriend leave. He says people would leave comments telling him how to treat Tanya or chiding him for not washing his hands after using the bathroom. Now is when the Internet bubble burst, and Harris loses most of his money. He shuts down the project—and vanishes. Even his family doesn’t hear from him for five years.

Because he--bought an apple farm! And went and to live there and farm. And he's become a bit pudgy and now spends the rest of the movie with an unlit cigar in his mouth. At one point in here--details are sketchy--he "reached out" to his mother, but she was cold, so he essentially disowned her. When she was dying he sent her a video response rather than go to visit her--and simply posted it to YouTube! In it he tells her that this is how people do things now and that "This is now. This is art now. I am an artist. One of the first great artists of the 21st century." Eventually he suddenly sells the farm and comes back to New York, where he starts a new technology company... and when it goes belly-up, vanishes again. At the very end he is discovered... in ETHIOPIA. No one ever says it, but the implication is that this person who was all-public and all about living digitally has, first at the farm and definitely in Ethiopia, gotten as far away from electronics and the internet and online fame as he possibly could.
< < < SPOILERS END

One specific aspect of that that summarizes all that this movie COULD have gone more into is Harris' obsession with Gilligan. We see him say that Sherwood Schwartz created who he is as a person, but he seems obsessed particularly with Gilligan, and we don't get information on that. For example, he has the aforementioned Gilligan poster in his apartment, his character Luvvy was based in part on Mr. Howell's wife, so what's going on? What really intrigued me was when I realized that an artwork in the background of Harris' older brother's house [above] was an altered version of the same Gilligan image... then I REALLY wanted to know what this really meant to all of them. Was Timoner too timid to explore this material, or did she see it as secondary to her main point? I suspect it's the latter, and that she wanted to stick closer to the important point about how the Interenet is shaping our lives... but again, I think if she had focused on HARRIS alone and made it more of a psychological portrait, all of that culture-wide stuff would have been implicit anyway, and the movie as a whole would be more interesting.

The documentary takes a sudden turn at the end into "Like OMG, everything we put online is there forever! And companies like totally use it to market to us!" which I felt was an unnecessary reach for significance. Writer/director Ondi Timoner should have just left the whole thing be about Harris and not tried so hard to have it be about US as a CULTURE. Regardless, often lately when I see a documentary I complain about all the avenues it could have taken that it didn't flesh out. This one has a lot of avenues it points out but doesn't follow through on, but it ends up working anyway because all of those avenues are so evocative. It raises many questions about early Internet businesses, the kind of people who would compete to have their every minute taped and broadcast online, the kind of people that would think broadcasting every second of their relationship would be a good idea, what kind of person Harris is, what kind of person would want to watch that, and ultimately, what happened to Harris to make him this way. Rather than seeming limited by the filmmaker's lack of imagination, as many others do [see: King Corn], she seems to be merely touching the tip of the iceberg with much of this material, and has much more to cope with than just one small documentary can cover. So for me, at least, it's better for a documentary to bring up more questions than it can answer that to try to inflate a few dull questions into bigger issues and leave a great many unspoken. This was the most interesting documentary I've watched in a LONG time.

Should you watch it: 

Ya sure should, especially if you are interested in the development of the Internet or just like documentaries about crazy people.