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Portraying Chaos: Ondi Timoner’s “We Live In Public” (Sundance ’09)

Portraying Chaos: Ondi Timoner's "We Live In Public" (Sundance '09)

According to documentarian Ondi Timoner, Josh Harris — the Internet pioneer at the center of “We Live in Public” — didn’t mind revealing the more twisted aspects of his web-fueled career. “I don’t care how you portray me,” he said, “as long as you make a great film.”

Yet it’s precisely because she portrays Harris on the basis of his accomplishments that she has managed to make a great film, albeit a flawed one. Harris started an early Internet television network called Pseudo.com during the 1990s, but that was just the tip of his audacious technological iceberg: Later, he founded the millennial cult Quiet, in which crazed individuals lived in a New York City bunker under constant video surveillance. That digitized Jonestown massacre gave way to Harris’s individualized form of online candor, with the titular project in which he streamed 24/7 video of him and his girlfriend at home.

Each radical new project further revealed the crazy extremes of Harris’s personality, and the footage speaks for itself, even if the movie occasionally feels too dense. Harris’s downward spiral represents a physical manifestation of social networking extremes. Timoner’s vibrant style makes the movie progress at a rapid pace; at times, it’s too much. The filmmaker followed Harris for over a decade, completing an early cut of the film solely based around Quiet back in 2000, and the density of that early segment in the final version creates a discombobulated narrative. The technicalities of the project seem unclear, and when Timoner briefly shifts from Harris to the desperate personalities willing to subject themselves to the bunker, the story loses focus. Whenever Harris returns to the screen, however, order is restored.

Actually, make that chaos: “You have to be delusional to be a visionary,” one interviewee reflects about Harris, but the psychotic elements of his personality also seem to undo his ambition. During the early days of Pseudo.com, Harris ruined the company’s reputation by appearing at parties wearing clown make-up as the demented character Luvvee; after the new century arrived, he promptly lost interest in Quiet and alienated his supporters. We Live in Public, the ill-fated project where he and his girlfriend shared the details of their relationship with the online public, eventually destroyed their life together, to the point where Harris still claims — possibly because he’s in denial — that their shared feelings were never real in the first place.

Timoner uses incredibly revealing footage of Harris’s meltdown, particularly scenes of his girlfriend growing intimidated by the unsettling project. It’s impossible not to become drawn into the inherently chilling drama. A real life version of “The Truman Show,” We Live in Public anticipated the growing prominence of audience interactivity. When Harris and his girlfriend fought, viewers would offer consultation on the We Live in Public chatroom. This collective consciousness, a knowledge community tailored to Harris’s specific needs, allowed the couple to workshop their relationship problems in a fundamentally revolutionary manner.

But it wasn’t enough for Harris. The final act finds him in a relentless journeyman phase, drifting from place to place in search of a better lifestyle. When a web pioneer becomes a farmer, you know something hasn’t gone quite right. Far too many of his antics pass by in a brief, unexplained montages, and it’s sometimes hard to understand what the director is trying to say with this highly unorthodox story. (A sequence involving 9/11 imagery scored to LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You” has no apparent motive.) But there’s no denying the fascinating qualities that Harris projects in nearly every scene, and the director does a solid job of putting us inside his frequently deranged universe. Timoner takes us deep inside his conundrum, but doesn’t quite explain how to resolve it.

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