Has physical connection become obsolete? With “We Live In Public,” Ondi Timoner ponders the reality of our virtual age.

What’s the defining image of 2009? A teenaged girl frantically texting messages from her Blackberry? Perhaps some geeky sixth grader, perusing the latest episode of “Farting in Public” from Youtube? Maybe a fat-cat tycoon trolling for business contacts on LinkedIn?

With confident, compressed momentum, “We Live In Public” persuades us that virtual interaction has trumped physical connection. Seconds before a screening of Ondi Timoner’s riveting documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival, wired audience members quickly squelch last-minute cell phone chatter. A sea of tiny, illuminated boxes fades to black.

Is it a positive progression, this new generation of humans staring into portable black monitors? Who would have envisioned an age in which hundreds of millions of people vicariously stalk one another – or are willfully stalked – in chat rooms, on cell phones, or through Youtube and Facebook? Or that this form of contact would be preferable to good, old-fashioned face-to-face banter, hugs, and handshakes? Or that privacy would be so easily forfeited for a chance to project our images onto the virtual public?

Josh Harris predicted all of this over a decade ago, prophesying that people would embrace virtual reality…before one day waking up “to realize we’re all servants.”

While the epic, macro side of “We Live In Public” concerns itself with how online social networks have permanently altered the landscape of human communication, the film’s more intimate window frames Harris, an Internet visionary whose influence has long been overlooked.

“He should have been known as a forefather of the (Internet) scene,” insists Timoner from the W Hotel in downtown Seattle, where she’s promoting her movie at SIFF. “But he was a footnote, until the film came out.”

Like a shot of Broadband to the brain, “We Live In Public” is prompting major buzz. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it scored Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary category (Timoner’s previous feature, the rock-doc “DIG!,” took the same honor at Sundance in 2004). Meanwhile, social network bigwigs are also paying attention. According to Timoner, Facebook wants a screening, and MySpace.com is considering a channel for promotion of the film.

Despite the fact that “We Live In Public” boasts a computer geek, and not Brad Pitt, as leading man, it’s anything but boring. In fact, Timoner edits her movie with the frenetic, rollercoaster pacing of “Goodfellas” on amphetamines. Harris, meanwhile, is a fascinating maverick who transcends dot-com nerd stereotypes. He’s also an unsung pioneer, helming a succession of revolutionary chat rooms, Internet television networks, and live reality-cams that paved the way for more lucrative successors.

Are you impressed by the instant-video-access concept behind Youtube? Harris was there first in the late nineties, with Pseudo.com, his groundbreaking online television channel. Who cares if its jittery images flickered by slow as molasses, unassisted by yet-unknown Broadband technology? “I think Josh was more concerned with being first,” suggests Timoner, “than with having a valid business plan.”

Do you rely on live web cams to satiate your voyeuristic id? Harris spearheaded this concept over a decade ago, rigging his apartment with microphones and surveillance cameras and inviting the world to observe him and his girlfriend 24/7, through meal preparation, arguments, and lovemaking. Allen Funt was never so bold.

Harris’ most jarring, frighteningly eccentric moment, however, was his 1999 art project “Quiet.” Assembling 100 fringy, art-minded friends to spend a month together, Harris then released these willful guinea pigs into a Manhattan bunker. Refurbished into a creepy human beehive, the futuristic abode housed a series of honeycomb-styled cubicles, each with a television monitor and video camera. Subjects were asked to inhabit the cubicles and observe each others’ antics – readily available through ongoing, live monitor footage.

The “Quiet” project became a grotesque, Warholian freak show. Pistol-packing gun freaks unloaded rounds at an indoor target range. Rampant nudity, gluttonous banquets, and sadistic interrogations accented Harris’ decadent community, before “Quiet” was busted by FEMA as a “millennial cult.”

As ghoulish and uninhibited as “Quiet” became, Harris’ bizarre social experiment ironically prophesied the dawning of our most common contemporary ritual – that of staring into PC, laptop, or cell phone monitors. The bunker stood as a physical metaphor for today’s Internet, while “Quiet” preceded “The Real World,” “Survivor,” and our rabid love affair with reality television.

Clearly, Harris was a visionary genius. However, the garish bunker antics of “Quiet” also depicted him as a creepy eccentric, willing to exploit others for his own amusement. Meanwhile, the self-confessed boob tube addict admits that his childhood was shaped more by television than by human parenting (He claims “Gilligan’s Island” creator Sherwood Schwartz as a surrogate father of sorts). Is Harris a cold, callous ringleader? Is there anything warm and fuzzy lurking beneath the chilly veneer of a man who said goodbye to his terminally ill mother via videotape?

Perhaps. Onscreen, we observe his attempts to cultivate a likable alter ego. Draped in a feather boa and coated with enough makeup to make Tammy Faye Baker wince, Harris takes on a clown persona named “Luvvee.” Seen entertaining guests at parties, is this drag-donning jester meant to be cute and cuddly – or simply an attention-getting bizarro? We’re never quite sure. Whatever Harris’ motives, Luvvee ultimately comes across less like Bozo and more like a monotone version of Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank N. Furter from “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Eventually, Harris retreated from the very public spotlight he had nearly invented. In 2001, he retreated to a rural apple farm in Upstate New York. Years later, Harris took up residence in Ethiopia, but has since returned to America, showing up at various film festivals for screenings of “We Live In Public.”

Does Timoner feel that the Internet and its various virtual applications are evil, or does she praise its virtues? Both, certainly. It’s a telling moment when she takes time out of our interview to call her young son, chatting about school projects over a cell phone. Merging the best aspects of both worlds, Timoner uses technology to enhance her very real relationships with loved ones.

In the paragraphs that follow, Timoner compares the mavericks she documents in her films, explains how she found empathy for Harris, and discusses the urgent human struggle to find connection with others.

You’ve won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize twice, for both “DIG!” and “We Live In Public.” Both films deal with creative mavericks. “DIG!” introduced us to songwriter Anton Newcombe, while “We Live In Public” focused on Internet entrepreneur Josh Harris. Do you see parallels between these two subjects?

They’re both pushing the edge of their lives, the mediums, the art in which they work, and society in general. They’re at times ostracized for the way that they live and treat people. They follow the beats of their own drummers, as extreme and at times as self-destructive as that beat is. At the same time, they’re sort of blazing a trail on the fringe. Those are the geniuses that I like to look at in my work. It’s not that I sought them out, per se. I just sort of got picked for the gig. Josh called me to document Cultural History.com. I didn’t seek this out, but it took me to articulate his vision and to make it relevant to now. I realized that was my mission and my job.

With Anton, I was filming ten bands up and down the West Coast, and he said, “Forget those other bands. We’re taking over and starting a revolution in the music business. You’re gonna follow my band, and the Dandy Warhols.” Within nine months, he was right. The dynamic had changed. The Dandy Warhols’ approach to the industry gave focus to the film. It became about the collision between arts and commerce, and whether or not one could maintain their integrity as they started to reach a mass audience.

Anton attacked his guitar player at a music industry showcase the Viper Room, which I thought was a very odd approach to getting signed (to a record company). Anton clearly didn’t even care about that. He had this impulse to destroy what would be the easy road. He’s like a shark that has to swim against the water; swim against the current to stay alive. Anton wanted to have the success, but he couldn’t play the game, or wouldn’t play the game, business-wise, to accomplish that.

In the case of Josh, I just thought he spent his money in the most extraordinary ways (laughter). Instead of buying houses, he was building bunkers. Whether that was folly, or just a buffoon businessman trying to buy his way into the art world, I knew he was doing enough strange activities that were effecting lives that he was worth documenting. I just had no idea, until Facebook, what exactly was going on.

I think to a large extent, Josh is still in America because it’s so gratifying to him after all these years to be called a visionary. I really feel like he was run out of Manhattan in a lot of ways, and ridiculed and forgotten. But if you look at Youtube’s business plan, you’re looking at Pseudo to some extent. It’s kind of undeniable, on that basic level. But I don’t think that Myspace and Facebook are necessarily up for acknowledging him per se.

You’ve used the term “zeitgeist” to describe “We Live In Public,” and stated that you felt this was the right time and place for the film to be “born.”

It’s about what’s happening now, to our relationships and our identities, and our self-worth. What is it about human nature that we have such a desire to be known, and to be recognized, and be famous? I think we see famous people as happy, and surrounded all the time. Now, through the Internet, people can have their ten minutes of fame every day, trying not to feel alone. But you may actually be more alone than you ever were before, because you’re not talking to your family, or your neighbor next door. You’re busy connecting “out,” in a very superficial way, and actually de-connecting from the physical world. These are questions that only you can answer, but they’re worth asking.

As a flip side to the film’s larger themes, you also focus on Harris’ personal life. His relationship with his mother, for example, where she is dying of pancreatic cancer, and he sends her his goodbye on videotape.

I opened the movie with it. I thought that him saying goodbye to his mom over videotape was the most powerful way to say, “This is what the movie is about.” You can’t conceive that you never could say goodbye to your loved one over a virtual medium. Think again, ‘cause your kid might be saying goodbye to you that way, if you raise him on the TV, or the computer, or the Internet. Like Josh said, he was nurtured by electronic calories.

People have diagnosed Josh with this, that, or the other. But the fact is, I wouldn’t have made a film about him if he was just a visionary. It was the fact that he has this pain, and this disconnection, and that he actually understands where we’re all headed…because he’s living it. He actually is a product of it. That, to me, was absolutely fascinating. His idea of family was formed by “Gilligan’s Island,” to the point where his real family felt somewhat obsolete to him.

That’s why the movie opens with him saying goodbye to his mother, who is on her deathbed, over the videotape, then pulling back to become sort of a Youtube video, that’s shared across the web. That’s his vision of where we’re all headed online. I felt like the opening of the film needed to encapsulate two things: visionary and cautionary tale at the same time. I don’t even thinks it’s a flip side. I think it’s actually what he’s experiencing. He makes the bunker, and surrounds himself with people, and feels more alone than he ever felt before.

I think you’re seeing a story of a man who is attempting to connect in any way that he can. Finding love for Josh was one of the hardest challenges I had, in finishing the film. I have to love my subjects in order to finish a film. I remember saying, “What am I gonna do? I don’t love this guy. I don’t know where my empathy is gonna come from. And it really came from Luvvy, his alter ego, who I felt was the way his girlfriend interprets it. “This is me! Don’t you like me?”

The discussion shifts to “Join Us,” Timoner’s 2007 film about cults, and the interesting parallels between followers of rock bands, the Internet, and cult groups.

My films are less about the visionaries than they are about the followers. I’m fascinated with what people will give up. I feel like that’s part of the message of my work; to be aware that you don’t need to. I’ve never been a group-oriented person myself. I’ve always enjoyed, even in high school, dancing around between the cliques. Able to talk to everybody, but not feeling part of the group. Even the name of my company is called Interloper, which means, “in the group but taking notes.”

I think that’s part of my fascination with human nature. Recently, I realized that we leave the womb, and our umbilical cord is cut. From the moment it’s cut, we’re alone. And we spend the rest of our lives trying not to feel that way. So we do everything we can not to feel alone, through relationships, families, kids. And friends on Facebook, now. But does it mean you’re not alone? No. You’re alone.

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