Documentarian Ondi Timoner lends her credulity and camera to swollen, damaged egos who believe themselves to be visionaries. We Live in Public documents 10 years in the life of dot-com multimillionaire–cum–installation artist Josh Harris, a clammy-looking loaf with none of the schizo firing-synapse spark that made musician Anton Newcombe a suitable study for her 2004 DiG!.
“One of the first great artists of the 21st century” (self-proclaimed), Harris’s primary claim to fame was “Quiet,” a locked-down scopophilic millennial commune, for which he footed the bill in exchange for the rights to tape and live-broadcast every intimate moment of the participants, all interwired in a web of constant mutual surveillance, presented as a model of the post-privacy online future.
Harris’s canard, which Timoner echo-chambers, is to insist that the behavior of a flawed test sample—trend-susceptible extrovert extended-adolescent “artists”—observed under this unique set of circumstances has any relation to how most people use computers. (One bit of associative editing actually connects the “Stasi-type” interrogation rooms that were an element of designed dystopia in “Quiet” to keyword-sensitive advertising in e-mail browsers.)
Timoner cuts her material to fit preconceptions. In DiG!, she set up the false dichotomy of get-rich pop band (the Dandy Warhols) vs. poor-but-authentic rockers (Newcombe’s Brian Jonestown Massacre), which opened the movie up to rock naïfs weaned on reality-TV generalities (while the superior You’re Gonna Miss Me went widely unseen). Incapable of separating bluster from inspiration, Timoner excludes any dissenting voice that might suggest BJM aren’t a terribly important band (they aren’t), or that Harris’s “Quiet,” a spasm of manic profligacy born of short-circuiting megalomania, isn’t artistically significant (it isn’t).
Timoner takes Harris’s erratic pulse—and diagnoses society. What is disturbing is not Harris’s self-absorbed insistence that his own emotional hobbling—self-protection through technology, “explained” by a raised-by-the-TV childhood—somehow reflects an overarching social-technological pattern, but, instead, Timoner’s uncritical cinematic collusion. She places her subject in a cultural vacuum, ignoring the long procession of justly better-remembered precedents that render Harris’s “ideas” banal. Even his ultimate self-discovery, the revelation that Ethiopians are more “real” than Los Angelenos, is another putrid cliché—which Timoner swallows with barely a flinch.