“We Live in Public” and the arrival of the new flesh

First of all, my apologies for subjecting you to the picture above of “Luvvy,” the frightening Mrs. Thurston Howell III-inspired clown alter ego of dot-com millionaire turned visionary self-described artiste Josh Harris. However, it’s arguably one of the less disturbing images available from what is probably going to be the most newsworthy film I’ll see at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and maybe anywhere else for a while.

It seemed even more that way when I learned while writing this post that Michael Jackson, an early experiment in living in public, had passed away at UCLA Medical Center — less than a quarter mile from the coffee house I’m writing this from. There’s a weirdness floating over L.A. right at the moment (as well as what sounds like a thousand helicopters).

Ondi Timoner’s “We Live in Public” scored the grand jury prize at Sundance this year, and not for no reason. If there’s any doubt that, despite the lack of flying cars or commercial space travel, we live in a science-fiction world, this film’s look at Harris’s ethically questionable but fascinating experiments in weirder-living through ‘net-driven intrusion does the trick. Philip Dick would be quite comfortable here and the Marshall McLuhanesque nightmare envisioned by David Cronenberg 1986 science-fiction classic, “Videodrome,” with its talk of media-generated “new flesh” seems closer than ever. (Naturally, a remake is in the offing.)

After making a bundle by arriving very early at the commercial and entertainment possibilities of the webtubes, Harris spent a huge chunk of his earnings in 1999 and 2000 on “Quiet.” It was an ultra-“Big Brother” type experiment in which hoardes of NYC hipsters and artists were sequestered in a high-tech bunker and placed under constant Internet surveillance, subjected to Stasi-style interrogations, and otherwise robbed of their humanity with their full cooperation. People who heard about it were able to see everything, and that includes all the stuff you’re thinking of (though judging from the film, a few people at least resorted to the old PG-13 movie trick of making love underneath blankets). Since there was also quite a few guns around, for some reason, it’s no surprise that the NYPD finally broke the thing up, though the situation had already turned a bit ugly, though not gun-ugly.

Harris’s next move was to start a relationship (which he denies was “real,” but there’s about zero reason to believe him) with the very attractive, charming, and seemingly level-headed Tanya Corrin. She enthusiastically agreed that the absolute logical thing to do was to turn the cameras inward and broadcast their life in quite literally every detail via the ‘net. The arrangement had its nicer side (one small thing: it’s easier to find lost stuff when thousands of people are watching your every move), but it turned out as least as bad as you think it might.

It might sound like an ugly story, and at times it certainly is. Timoner, who worked for Harris on “Quiet” and earlier ventures before making another Sundance Grand Jury Prize documentary, “DiG!,” also captures the excitement surrounding a figure who many compared to a latter day Andy Warhol. That’s not to say there’s anything sugarcoated here and, indeed, she opens with the single least likable moment in the life of her main character, his video “appearance” at his mother’s funeral, which is even colder and more brutal than it sounds. Of course, there’s always more to the story. We eventually learn that, too, but Timoner’s honesty in leading with the frankly bizarre and even coldblooded nature of her lead character is a gutsy choice, one of several here. But the gutsiest part may be her willingness to delve into the more potentially dehumanizing aspects of our brave new plugged-in world which has some pretty strange folks in it. This is a documentary very much worth your time.

The biggest surprise of the evening, given some of what we saw in the film itself, was the appearance of Josh Harris at the screening (fortunately, not as “Luvvy”). He says he working on a new project that will reveal what he sees as the “Purdue Chicken”-like destiny of coming generations. Is that the shape of the “new flesh” we’re all heading toward? I would like to think he’s wrong, but between Facebook and the kind of all-enveloping media frenzies like the one we’re about to experience with Jackson’s death, it’s impossible to be too sure. Especially today.

  

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