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Movie Review

We Live in Public

The rise and fall of a dot-com darling: ‘Public’ traces a visionary’s virtual ruin

In 1999, Josh Harris (below left) began Quiet, a social experiment in which 150 volunteers lived in a bunker with surveillance cameras everywhere, including the bathrooms. In 1999, Josh Harris (below left) began Quiet, a social experiment in which 150 volunteers lived in a bunker with surveillance cameras everywhere, including the bathrooms. (Donna Ferrato/Interloper Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 4, 2009

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“We Live in Public’’ is a documentary about Josh Harris, who director Ondi Timoner (“Dig!’’) bills as the “greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.’’ There’s a reason you’ve never heard of him - or, if you have heard of him, a reason you’re probably trying to forget him. All by himself, Harris embodied the dot-com bubble of the 1990s: The heady pronouncements of an endless techno-future, the geek arrogance, the obscene pots of money, the digital isolation that passed (and passes) itself off as a communications revolution. The cyber-cool that, 15 years later, just seems vaguely embarrassing, like power shoulder pads from the ’80s.

Basically, Harris was a visionary entrepreneur who believed his own hype and went nuts. Seeing the potential of the Internet by the early 1980s, he founded Jupiter Research, which fueled the revolution with statistics on the coming tsunami. He also built and maintained Prodigy’s groundbreaking chat rooms. By 1993, Harris had $80 million in magic money and started Pseudo.com, which broadcast hipster “Internet TV’’ shows from downtown New York: one-frame-per-second video feeds with chat windows next to them. It seemed like a great idea at the time.

Around this point, Harris started freaking out investors by appearing in public as “Luvvy,’’ a demented clown with a high-pitched singsong voice. He was more than a businessman; he was an artist - a digital Warhol. Even better: He was God. In 1999, Harris opened the doors to Quiet, a social experiment in which 150 artists and scene-mongers agreed to live underground for a month while “Oz’’ (as Harris came to be known) videotaped everything. And I mean everything: There were surveillance cameras in the toilets. There was a gun range in the basement.

Timoner was one of the Quiet denizens, and her footage presents the project as an ultra-creepy Orwellian rave - something close to Jim Jones in SoHo. If “We Live in Public’’ has a flaw, it’s that the director never clarifies her dual roles as participant and observer. Timoner’s obviously close to her material - arguably too close - but she structures her movie as a standard documentary, if a fast-paced and entertaining one. By keeping her own insights under wraps, she blunts the film’s edge. She was there; we need to know not only what she saw but what she thought about what she saw.

“We Live in Public’’ is still fascinating, like a car wreck seen through a rearview mirror. After Quiet ground to a halt, Harris moved in with one of his Pseudo stars and broadcast their relationship on the Web, 24-7. Predictably, things turned ugly and fell apart; the film touches eerily on the paranoia and power games that can come from having an ever-present audience. Who do you play to? Your loved ones or the ones who love watching? If you have a Facebook account, it’s not an idle question.

What Harris really wanted, it seems, was to live in a TV series, not the real world. This is a man who worshipped the cast of “Gilligan’s Island’’ (from whence came Luvvy) and who bid farewell to his terminally ill mother via videotape. That someone so incapable of human connection was a key architect of the online universe most of us now call home is a dark joke “We Live in Public’’ only casually addresses.

The movie won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance last January. Its subject, according to a recent New York Times article, lives in a friend’s pool house in Los Angeles, plays poker for spending money, and is convinced he’s being monitored by the FBI. Harris’s newest idea, a “three-dimensional real-world’’ online experience called the Wired City, has yet to find backers. Midway through “We Live in Public,’’ one Quiet participant delivers the hard social lesson of cyberspace: “The more you get to know everyone, the more alone you become.’’ Josh Harris apparently has yet to figure that out.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

WE LIVE IN PUBLIC Written and directed by: Ondi Timoner

Starring: Josh Harris

At: Brattle Theatre

Running time: 89 minutes

Unrated (as R/NC-17: language, nudity, drug use, graphic sexuality, dot-com monomania)

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