By Whitney Borup | January 25, 2009

A film that publicizes with a photograph of two people taking a s**t together is sure to get some attention. And while I was hoping that “We Live in Public” would live up to its publicity shot and title, perhaps it’s better that the actual film is a bit toned down…(you know, for my general wellbeing…)

“We Live in Public” is the story of a wacky Internet pioneer named Josh Harris. Possessing an uncanny ability to predict the future of technology, Harris put together various art projects that demonstrated this future, becoming a notorious figure among mega-nerds. One of these projects, titled “Quiet,” invited over 100 artists and eccentric citizens (including “We Live in Public’s” filmmaker Ondi Timoner) to move into a New York hotel (of sorts) and live under 24-hour surveillance in a physical manifestation of what life online would eventually become. Each resident of “Quiet” had the ability to tune in and observe any other resident, in a giant rat cage of human experiments. This is where the publicity shot comes in: the residents had virtually no privacy and everything they did (including showering, toileting, and sexing) was broadcasted for the world to see via the Internet.

After Quiet was busted by FEMA – who thought it was some kind of cult – Harris started on his next project: becoming the subject. He set up motion-censored cameras throughout his entire apartment and lived in public with his girlfriend Tanya. “We Live in Public” (the project) was an eerie prediction of the popularity of webcams and everyone’s desire for “15 minutes of fame a day, every day.” Claiming the project was a social experiment, Josh and Tanya’s relationship quickly declined in front of everyone. Apparently, a camera in the toilet bowl is not the most romantic gift a fellow can give.

The film goes on to follow Harris’s steady decline and various identities, making shallow claims of maternal neglect to explain his general insanity. It’s a fascinating look at a really weird guy who, whether you know it or not, made a profound impact on all of our lives (because who doesn’t spend hours a day on YouTube?).

Ondi Timoner (who also directed “DIG!” in 2004) does an excellent job at covering the jam-packed life of Josh Harris. He’s done so much that is worth knowing about, and the film was vastly entertaining because of the subject. However, as a film “We Live in Public” suffers from its general form. From the first frame, it tries to set up a dramatic story, hoping that the terrible relationship Harris had with his mother will convince us to like the guy. Contrarily, finding out that this relationship was merely strained (the worst thing that happened seemed to be Harris’s mother telling him to “fend for himself” for dinner sometimes) forces our sympathies away from the whiney little geek. That’s harsh. The man is fascinating. It seems to be the film’s fault that we follow this vein in the story in an effort to tie Harris’s life into a neat little bow.

I also take issue with the recent documentary trend to shove as many images into a second as possible. Images (often ironic) that have very little to do with what is going on in the film, seem to merely speed the thing up, attempting to make a film form that the populace doesn’t often swallow more palatable. It’s unfortunate that a film with such an interesting subject (without all the extra…stuff) resorts to this MTV-style level of entertainment. There is so many stories that Harris can tell. I don’t believe those stories need to be sped up any further.

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