Hanging with the new flesh

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“Your reality is already half video hallucination. If you’re not careful, it will become total hallucination. You’ll have to learn to live in a very strange new world.” – Media philosopher Brian O’Blivion in David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” (1983)

So far, the bulk of gifted documentarian Ondi Timoner’s work has dealt with the forces that persuade human beings to give up some part of themselves, whether it be in pursuit of creative growth, God, or fame. Her latest film, takes that as far as it can possibly go. Unlike her remarkable “DiG!,” about the cultish neo-psychedelic rock band, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, or “Join Us,” about an actual religious cult, this time the cult is not just a few fanatics, it’s you and me.

I first praised the Sundance Grand Jury prize-winning “We Live in Public,” opening Friday at L.A.’s Nuart Theater (with special Q&As Friday and Saturday nights), back in June when I saw it at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The screening was capped off with the then somewhat surprising appearance by the documentary’s antihero, Internet entrepreneur and self-styled conceptual artist Josh Harris. Having returned from an idyll in Ethiopia, he said that his next project was something he called “the Wired City” and that, in his view, a typical human’s life in the future is going to be something like the present day existence of “a Purdue chicken.” He also said he hadn’t seen the movie and wasn’t sure when he would.

Back in the 1990’s, Harris made a large fortune largely by being one of the first to see the full communications potential of the web and was a dot-com era sensation via his groundbreaking web entertainment company, Pseudo. Leaving that when his eccentric and creative side grew to be too artsy and weird for the corporate room, he then spent a good chunk of that fortune on two highly provocative experiments/art projects.

We Live in PublicFirst came “Quiet” – basically a month-long party/community in an underground compound on the west side of New York with overt fascistic overtones. Harris recruited roughly 100 artists and creative types to live there 24/7 for an indefinite period (it turned out to be a month). He would provide all the food, (legal) party favors, a firing range and plenty of weaponry (blanks only, I’m told), as well as a fake church and real interrogation tactics borrowed from the Cold War-era East German secret police.

Cameras were everywhere – bedrooms, bathrooms, and showers very much included — and it was all subject to web broadcast. As Harris starkly put it: “Don’t bring your money with you. Everything is free – except the video that we capture of you. That we own.” The results were as fraught as you might imagine, though it was managed well enough that Harris says not a single lawsuit emerged, something of an achievement in 21st century Manhattan.

“Quiet” was followed by “We Live in Public,” in which Harris turned his privacy-robbing ways inward. The net-artiste and the woman he now insists to everyone (including me) was his “fake” girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, allowed themselves to be put on web display in the most intimate fashion possible, naturally including their loft bedroom and bathrooms. (Somewhat gruesomely, Harris added toilet bowl mounted cameras to the mix.)

Not too surprisingly the project ended with the break-up of the apparently real couple, and the near breakdown of Harris. To make matters worse, his remaining fortune was largely evaporating in the wake of the bursting of the nineties dot-com bubble.

Cut to Tuesday, when I met with writer-director Ondi Timoner at a conference room in a Beverly Hills boutique hotel. I was supposed to interview Harris there as well, but when Timoner reached him via cell, he turned out to be in the middle of a Hold-‘Em tournament at the Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood and couldn’t talk for long. However, he volunteered that he had finally seen “We Live in Public.”

Ondi Timoner, writer-director of Timoner was naturally anxious to get his reaction, but Harris said he had yet to fully absorb the film’s impact. However, he liked the film’s graphics and wished the movie would be about an hour longer. Timoner countered that “There’s that weird thing where you have to make a movie 90 minutes long,” and said there’s be more for him on the DVD. Poker tournaments, it turns out, are part of how the onetime web millionaire is currently getting by financially, and so rather than get in the way of his livelihood, we agreed to have a separate conversation later that day.

My conversation with Timoner, some of it sadly lost to time due to likely user error and definite unwise reliance on analog technology (farewell, my tape recorder), focused on the filmmaking’s slightly jagged, off-kilter, but very compelling approach to filmmaking — which she describes as “written” and storytelling oriented — as well as her interest in cults and cult-like groups.

“It’s really more about the followers than the leader. With “DiG!,” the question was: What are we willing to give up to go down the road of making music? What kind of commitment is required that goes beyond just being in a band? Or in the case of  ‘We Live in Public,’ what are we willing to give up to make a connection with a number of people — fame? The answer is ‘everything’: our lives, our freedom.”

Her connection to Josh Harris began in 2000 when he hired the young filmmaker to document “Quiet.” Keeping a hotel room “to keep myself sane.” She spent the entire month filming the events and had completed a rough cut of a documentary feature when, in the midst of his financial and emotional crisis, Harris confiscated all of the footage and, Timoner says, reneged on her fee. The project was nevertheless revived a few years later when Harris called her back and promised to give her full creative control and 50% of whatever take there was.  Still, she says, she wasn’t fully energized about the project until she saw her first Facebook update somewhat later.

“Someone posted, ‘I’m going west on the freeway.’ I thought ‘is there some reason I’m supposed to know this? Am I am supposed to meet this person or something?’” It was then that the cartoon light bulb appeared over her head and she realized, with some alarm, “this is the future.” Though Timoner is an energetic woman who describes herself as personally quite upbeat, she admits that her films tend to be dark, because they are about the extreme of what human beings are willing to give up, including their very humanity.

Next up for Timoner is her dramatic filmmaking debut, to be co-produced with actress Eliza Dushku. “The Perfect Moment” will be a biopic about the life of the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, whose on-the-edge work sparked a national right/left debate about censorship, homophobia, and government funding for the arts following his death in 1989. Nevertheless, making sure that “We Live in Public” gets as much distribution and exposure as possible – and a shot at what would be a well-deserved Oscar nomination — is very much top of mind. As is the film’s disturbing subject matter, something she’s constantly reminded of every time she gets a new message via her very busy Blackberry.

I asked her about how it seems that, despite having such a seemingly bleak vision of the future of humanity, Josh Harris doesn’t appear to be in any way trying to prevent it. “He’s trying to capitalize on it.” She added with a metaphorical wink: “I’m Luke Skywalker and he’s Darth Vader.”

Josh Harris and Ondi Timoner

****

And so it was a few hours later than I found myself having a chat in Vader’s lair, a guest house in an ultra-upscale portion of Brentwood, just north of UCLA…and being helped out with my recurring audio issues by a surprisingly tolerant and relaxed Mr. Vader. Perhaps the better movie villain to compare Josh Harris to would be Prof. Brian O’Blivion, the evangelist of “the new flesh” – humanity merged with media — in David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome.”

Even so, it’s somewhat comforting to note that even a man whose IQ is likely significantly north of most smart people, and who saw the possibilities of the Internet decades early, can be a bit boggled by how to get an audio file off his cell phone. (Later on I also had the pleasure of explaining via e-mail to the ‘net pioneer how to make screen capture images from a DVD.)

As to Harris’s reaction to the film about him, he seemed to have decided he generally was pleased with it. On the other hand, he admitted that he was talking with friends while watching it, and it was possible he had missed more than a few things on the sound track. “I was more interested in which imagery she chose. The imagery is what’s interesting to me personally.”

Still, it didn’t take much time to get to the one topic I knew for sure was coming. “There’s only piece of the film that didn’t ring true was when Ondie did the voiceover saying that Tanya and I were in love.”

Timoner and the vast majority of people who see the film seem to agree that Harris’s denial of the reality of the relationship is a pretty transparent means of maintaining some emotional distance from an obviously painful episode. When I expressed even greater skepticism when Harris explained that he’d “cast” Tanya Corrin in late 1996 and dated her for the entire period up to “We Live in Public” in late 2000, “suffering” for his art for years only to follow through on his vision for “We Live in Public,” Harris tried to explain it to me using references to Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show,” not surprisingly a favorite film of his. He eventually got to the heart of the matter more directly. I think.

“It wasn’t like ‘I’m casting you and five years later we’re going to be with the cameras on in the loft and fifteen years later we’re going to be in this movie.’ It just happened…But I certainly cast her and I certainly have proof of that casting,” Harris said, promising to send me a link to a video which he was certain proved his point.

“If you look at me in a certain light everything make sense. If you don’t [it doesn’t]. Virtual…real. We’re right at the cusp right now of the mingling of virtual and real. Ten or fifteen years ago I understood that problem, so I did name my company ‘Pseudo.’ If I can prove to you the premeditation of a fake girlfriend, then you might believe that the company is named ‘Pseudo’…That edge of reality and virtual is my pursuit relative to this work.”

While I brought up the probability that the thousands of ‘net users who tuned into the Harris/Corrin loft would never have bothered if they believed that they were seeing a partially staged relationship, we found ourseves in “all the world’s a stage” territory. It was time to move on to another topic: the mere future of mankind. I mentioned his “Purdue Chicken,” line, one of many dystopian predictions Harris has made over the years. Still, he’s not in the position of futuristic writers of the past like Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, trying to prevent mankind from going down a perilous path — as he sees it, there’s no point.

“Unless the world blows up, it’s gonna happen. You just have to accept it. It’s evolution. You can stop evolution, but you can’t deny it.”

It’s tempting to deny Harris’s prediction as the mouthings of a wacked out genius with too much unfocused brainpower and too much energy – except that he’s one of the very few people who saw the future of the Internet literally decades early. “I’m very adept at extrapolating. So I know what’s gonna happen. I’m not guessing….I know this is hard to believe and all that, but all of this is hard to believe. I can keep you harder-to-believing it until the cows come home.”

Harris was as good as his word. In fact, I have to admit that we wandered some what far afield discussing media and his newest project and the possible source of his next fortune, the Wired City. It’s a hard to describe virtual community involving home studios in which users make their own videos and share them in a set-up which sounds something like an audio-visual reimagination of Facebook, perhaps combined with a user-driven community blog along the lines of the liberal DailyKos. I was finding all of this a bit too much fun and to an outsider, it might have looked like that scene from “Animal House,” with me as Tom Hulce’s naïve freshman and Harris as Donald Sutherland’s vaguely evil, pot-smoking professor. Only no mind-expanding substances were involved. Indeed, I’m not sure what my excuse was, but Harris probably can’t help being a bit of a visionary.

Still, there’s no denying the dark side of all this. And, that came later that night when Harris sent me the promised link to a site belonging to a friend where I could see the video “proof” of the falseness of his now long-dead relationship with Tanya Corrin.

The video is a conversation between Harris and friend, Internet entrepreneur and vastly more restrained web visionary, Jason Calacanis, who figures prominently in “We Live in Public” and is promoting the film on his blog. In the video, a younger Harris describes Tanya Corrin in some very unflattering terms as being an essentially hollow person and, for the life of me, he really does seem to be saying that he has been searching for someone to use in some form of art project and that Corrin will be it. Indeed, he adds that she seems to realize there is some kind of deception going on, which sounded a lot like one of Harris’s “Truman Show” comparisons.

As of this writing, the video is viewable only through a private website. Not that it reveals or explains much, though it is somewhat disturbing. Calacanis, if not quite approving, doesn’t seem put off by a project that, assuming it’s all true, would be cruel and deceptive. To be fair, however, I have to add that there’s something about Harris that sort of defies literal reading; you don’t want to believe he’s entirely serious even though you know he mostly is.  On the other hand, we males sometimes tell themselves things to minimize the importance of relationships early on, only to later realize we’ve gone the whole nine emotional yards. Jason Calicanis, in a January 28h post on his blog, refers to Tanya Corrin as “the love of his [Harris’s] life.” He was there. I wasn’t. Who am I to try and make sense of any of this?

Launder My HeadAnd, then, I thought of the strangest exchange from the previous night, in which I asked Harris about a remark that Ondi Timoner said he had thrown her off somewhat, which was that his entire life’s work could be boiled down to “Launder My Head,” a two-minute CGI video Harris had made in the early nineties using a pair of augmented Amiga computers. The animation features a group of bodies with monitors displaying their faces for heads, chanting the title and some other, vaguely creepy, words. As recounted by Harris:

We are here to tell you,

How we tell you;

How to live;

We are you conscience;

We are not conscious.

Harris tried to explain how the video relates to his life’s work. “I believe that, however they did it, maybe it was watching all that media or whatever, from on high, that next evolutionary force had me make that little video because that’s them introducing themselves to us in advance.”

Just who does Harris mean by “them”?

“‘Who,’ ‘it,’ whatever you call it. The singularity.”

Doesn’t that sound a little…religious? Is he talking about God?

“Whatever you want to call it. It got downloaded, and I opened the file.”

Make of all that, what you will, because I’m still trying to figure it out. But I guess I should have expected that I’d finish this piece with more questions than I started with. When you go down the rabbit hole, the light is going to be poor.

****

Anyone who has read this far and lives in the Los Angeles area really should make it down to the Nuart Theater while the highly entertaining and reasonably mind-blowing “We Live in Public” runs through this week. Preferably on Friday or Saturday night when, for the first time ever in public, filmmaker Ondie Timoner and her infuriating, amoral, and oddly likable visionary subject, Josh Harris, will be discussing the film for the first time in public since he’s seen the film.

If you’re not in the area but still want to check out what’s bound to be a fascinating moment, anyone who’s interested will also be hear the discussion live via the “We Live in Public” website.

  

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