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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

LAFF Review: We Live in Public

The other night I attended a LAFF screening of We Live in Public; I’d missed seeing it at previous fests and was determined to catch it this time. I was expecting a documentary mostly about internet mogul Josh Harris and his experiment living his life with his girlfriend completely online and how that tore their relationship apart. And it is partly about that, but it’s also about what made Harris the particular sort of crazy genius-visionary he is, his early understanding of how the internet would change all our lives, and the ways in which it’s good — and bad — that we live our lives now in a public space more than anyone could have imagined possible a few decades ago.

Harris made millions off having an early and astute understanding of how to make money off this new thing called the internet, but the more fascinating things about him have to do with his private life and his experiments in art and culture, most notably his wild art parties and the notorious “Quiet: We Live in Public” project, in which he built an underground village of sorts under New York City and persuaded over 100 artists to live there, with their every move caught on camera. Participants got to live and eat in the Japanese-style cubicle hotel for free, but essentially agreed to sign away the rest of their rights for the privileges of participating in the experiment, which included having no privacy whatsoever, whether you were sleeping, shitting, shooting guns on the underground gun range, arguing with fellow residents over privacy rights to the shower, or having sex. Not only were participants monitored themselves, but they could also monitor other residents. Quiet “citizens” were also interrogated ruthlessly with methods that resembled psychological torture.
Harris was the puppetmaster of it all, joyfully manipulating his subjects and gauging reactions and interactions as he experimented with proving his belief that as we lived our lives more and more in public, human interaction would fall apart. We Live in Public director Ondi Timoner was there for the Quiet experiment, as what started with a sense of artistic freedom and debauchery deteriorated into instability and violence; the project was shut down by police New Year’s Day 2000, when police feared it was a doomsday millenium cult.
Harris was right, mostly, about what would happen within the model of this very public community setting; for his next project, “We Live in Public,” Harris and his then-girlfriend became the subjects, living their lives completely on-camera, online all the time, while the people who followed the site commented on what they were doing at any given moment and took sides in the couple’s increasingly frequent fights. Eventually Harris’s girlfriend left him and his own mental stability collapsed along with the dot com boom. He lost most of his money and ended up moving to Ethiopia to hide from creditors.
Timoner starts off her film showing Harris’s bizarre video send-off to his mother, which he sent her in lieu of his physical presence when she was dying of pancreatic cancer. At first this seems an odd way to introduce the film’s subject, but his mother is eventually revealed to be (at least from Harris’s own perspective) directly responsible for Harris developing from an intelligent, inquisitive child into an asocial technogeek who connects more with the characters on Gilligan’s Island than with other people. It’s hard to pin the blame entirely on bad parenting, though; surely plenty of kids with working parents grow up feeling emotionally deprived without becoming completely unstable themselves.
What’s most relevant about both Harris and this film is that he was absolutely right about the way the internet and technology would come to connect us and drive us; who could have foreseen before the dawning of the internet age that by 2008 we’d measure our self-worth in Facebook friends, Twitter followers and page views? When virtual battles break out on the internet over Mac vs PC, whether Transformers is the worst movie ever or a masterpiece, whether gays should be allowed to marry, whether breast or bottle-feeding is best, or any other of the endless parade of topics that drive us to defend our positions, the physical distance and anonymity the internet affords us also allows people to attack each other in ways they probably never would in a real-life interaction.
Moments people thought were private get uploaded to YouTube for the consumption and judgment of millions of people, and playground bullying has given away to cyberbullying. The internet, much as it connects us and allows us to interact with people we’d otherwise perhaps never even have met, also divides us, conquers us, and Harris understood that before most people even wrapped their brains around what it was on a technical level. We Live in Public won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance this year and has been one of the most-buzzed films on the fest circuit, and with good reason. Timoner, using Harris as her lens, refracts what our wired culture has become back at us and asks us to judge whether it’s good or bad.
I think it’s both … but wait — I’d better go do a Twitter poll to find out what everyone else thinks, first.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon