DVD Review: We Live in Public (2009)

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Three weeks ago in a cab, I listened to a driver ramble on about his side gig and passion to install a camera in his cab and broadcast every conversation he had online. Suddenly, he stopped rambling and stared right in the rear view mirror at me and at a red light, dropped the bomb, “I have the camera installed already. I'm testing it out.”

“Are we online now?” I asked cautiously, nervous and a bit alarmed over just whom was driving the car. He shook his head and when the ride was finished he said, “you're one of the more fascinating passengers I've picked up. I wish I had been streaming online.”

I exited the car thoroughly creeped out by the exchange and a few other topics of conversation he introduced which reminded me of the film 2012. And although it was odd, overall, it was disturbingly eerie to go from the car to the elevator of my destination, realizing I was on camera the entire way and may have been on tape previously without my knowledge.

Yet far more intriguing than just the idea and title of this documentary in question -- We Live in Public -- is the fact the world isn't just made up of Hitchcockian voyeurs but also exhibitionists and the internet is unleashing everyone's inner superstar on a daily basis.

As an interviewee reveals in this curiously captivating portrait of madness and genius in the information age, citizens no longer long for Andy Warhol's oft-cited fifteen minutes of fame as social media (which we consume more than McDonalds) has made it such that we crave fifteen minutes of validation and notoriety each and every day, measuring our self worth by the number of clicks, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and pageviews we receive.

Voluntarily we give up our privacy more and more in order to shout in a series of LOLs and smiley face icons “notice me; love me,” as a strange cyber legacy that will live on even after we do as abandoned websites and social networking pages exist as a marker of life after tragedy strikes or after we cease updating our profiles to the point that couples now meet, fight, make-up and breakup with clicks of the mouse.

And through mankind's entire love affair with the world wide web, one man has been there from the beginning which is chronicled in this unique piece of poignant portraiture that turns the mirror back on us at times to inquire as to our own online behavior, whilst DIG! filmmaker Ondi Timoner introduces us to Josh Harris, “the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of” whose work foreshadowed chat rooms, web cameras and online networks, as well as the social networking phenomenon.

Not just a simple “Dot Com” kid, Harris began his own television network and sought to become bigger than Time Warner, going as far as to tell 60 Minutes that and again predicting the evolution of the way we receive information as newspapers and network television broadcasts have changed to online headlines and breaking news Tweets.

And in the '90s Harris crafted radical experiments like staging his own voluntary art experiment by living with strangers who showered in the open and slept in pods, subjected themselves to intense interrogation, psychological testing all for the chance to be on camera 24/7 in a carefully planned community that was never short of food or drink.

Eventually this '99 online live-in evolved into another stage as Josh Harris installed cameras all over the home he shared with his girlfriend and later he infamously uploaded an oddly upbeat, cavalier YouTube farewell video for relatives to share with his mother on her deathbed in lieu of a traditional bedside visit.

Needless to say, he's one extremely tough individual to get a clear handle on as you admire his tenacity, passion and incredible desire to connect with others but on a basic human emotional level, Harris only succeeds when there's a barrier between himself and others which he often imposes himself whether it's through a camera, a computer or both.

Having grown up addicted to Gilligan's Island which it seems that Harris lived vicariously through since he had always had a challenging relationship with his mother, it's deeply engaging to see him process his love of television and need for love and combine the two even if at times it's either bewilderingly cool or just plain bizarre.

Voluntarily attracted to Orwell's Big Brother or Huxley's Brave New World and embracing it with open arms rather than Phillip K. Dick like fear, Harris is one of the most alternately infuriating and fascinating documentary subjects I've seen in a long while.

And in We Live in Public, two time Sundance award winning filmmaker Timoner – working with over a decade's worth of footage – manages to find that rare balance of making us believe we're watching a film purely about one person rather than a multilayered work that makes you inwardly inquire just how public your life is as well as why. "Taxi!"

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.