Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SIFF Report #2: "We Live In Public" and "Moon"

Ondi Timoner's new documentary and Duncan Jones' haunting sci-fi movie both feature men isolated from normal life by technology. The former film spotlights a man who predicts the future with remarkable accuracy; the latter is about a man who's already living it.

Josh Harris (pictured above), the subject of We Live In Public, was raised by television. The youngest child in a large family, he spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the TV set, often watching Gilligan's Island. This was partly because his mother told him to fend for himself if he asked when dinner would be ready -- she was usually too busy drinking martinis to notice the time -- and partly, I suspect, because Harris was born weird, or became weird so quickly that he might as well have come out that way. He was also born extremely smart, and his story resembles many others of the dot-com boom. He plugged into the potential of the Internet when it was in its earlier stages, and eventually he created, a proto-YouTube that featured original, Web-only programming on subjects ranging from hip-hop to Hollywood.

He quickly amassed a fortune and spent it in highly creative ways; his parties were happenings on a Warholian scale, so it's no surprise that he soon became known as "the Warhol of the Web." While Pseudo was at its peak, he also took on a strange alter ego named Luvvy, a disturbingly fervent clown. The character, from the little we see of it, seems to be an id-powered channeling of Josh's intense desire to love and be loved. The sad part is that he never really learned how, so his disguised plea for affection came off as more than a little deranged. Eventually, he stepped down from the helm of Pseudo and embarked on a mission that would make him even more infamous in New York: a social experiment-cum-art project called "Quiet: We Live In Public."

Timoner took part in that project, which involved sealing dozens of New York art-scene denizens into an underground bunker for one month, just before the turn of the millennium. A cross between a protracted techno-rave and the Stanford prison experiment, "Quiet" included a gun range, an interrogation room (where an "interrogation artist" routinely brought people to tears), and cameras everywhere: the bathrooms, the showers, the bed "pods" -- really, everywhere. Though the citizens of "Quiet" emerged physically unscathed, they witnessed some frightening behavior before the NYPD broke up Harris' experiment, suspecting it -- understandably -- of being a millennial cult. What Harris did next is the part of his life, and Timoner's film, that really stayed with me.

Following "Quiet," the eccentric dot-com mogul found love in the form of Tanya Corrin, who had worked as a program host at The couple decided to move in together, but Harris had a very special request: He wanted his new girlfriend to join him in an experiment he would simply call "We Live In Public." In essence, it would be a more personal iteration of "Quiet," a multi-month project in which he and Corrin would live together in an apartment monitored by motion-sensitive surveillance cameras. Everything the cameras captured would go, in real time, to a specially designed Web site. Trusting his vision and her heart, I suppose, Corrin agreed to this setup, and "cultural history" -- as Harris liked to put it -- was about to be made.

What ensued was the most titillating, agonizing kind of reality television, albeit on the Internet. Visitors to got to see Harris and Tanya have sex, fight, and eventually break up. Throughout it all, commenters gave their opinions on everything. The site's fans were so devoted, and so eagled-eyed, that at one point in the experiment, before things go sour, Corrin playfully looks at a camera and asks viewers whether they've seen her wallet. It's a startling moment, underscoring the way in which she and Harris let people into every corner of their home, and every inch of their life together.

It's no coincidence that this part of the film is the most compelling. "Quiet" was a daring, wacky thing to try, but "We Live In Public" serves up the more interesting insights into human relations, and also the more lurid ones. It's one thing to watch a man and a woman take a shower together in front of a dozen amused bunker-dwellers; it's quite another to watch a basically decent man turn into a quasi-abuser, as we watch Harris do, and then to see his girlfriend leave the room in tears, heartbroken. God help us all, it's real human drama, and it's virtually irresistible.

Through a combination of luck and persistence, Timoner gets to follow Harris' story nearly to the present day, and the turns it takes between the end of "We Live In Public" and his arrival in Africa are just as terrifically surprising as everything prior. We Live In Public, the film, starts off screamingly fast, zooming through the birth of the Internet and the development of Harris' career through the Pseudo years. When it slows down for the millennial bunker project, and for his and Corrin's doomed cohabitation, the movie trades speed for power and really starts going somewhere. Timoner begins with a doltishly obvious title card ("This is the story of the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of") and a silly visual gimmick (a computer cursor "types" what we read) and then burrows her way to the heart of the story.

The film impressed me more as it went along, and by the end it had shown me things that would stay with me for days. Harris is, in Timoner's opinion, a "walking cautionary tale" about what happens when you allow the media to raise your children. (Hint, hint to parents of Web-savvy toddlers: Don't let this happen to your kid!) But in my view, it's even more painful as an illustration of what happens when someone deeply unprepared for love doesn't know what to do with it. Corrin plays along as much as reasonably possible when Harris decides to broadcast their home life to the masses, but a girl can only take so much. (At one point, when he begs for sex, she responds: "I don't want to be your porn star.") Interviewed years later about the relationship, Harris claims that Corrin wasn't a real girlfriend -- he was essentially trying to cast a role in the reality show that was his life, and she fit the part perfectly. Asked about this statement, she dismisses it, explaining that people convince themselves of such things to protect their hearts. She has moved on to marriage and children; he, for better or worse, seems truly incapable of a "normal" life.

Yet he moves proudly forward, as his appearance following the screening proved. After the official Q&A, audience members crowded around Harris, presumably to pick his brain about the Internet's Next Big Thing. If Harris did, as Timoner suggests, predict our current Facebook culture with astounding accuracy, then he undoubtedly gave the assembled inquirers something good to chew on. (He's the one, after all, who updated Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" idea, asserting that in the 21st century, we all want 15 minutes per day.) I decided to leave the Egyptian and walk out into the beautiful, non-virtual spring sun.

The sun also happens to be a major player in Moon, British director Duncan Jones' film about a man named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), whose job it is to help a large company harvest solar energy on the lunar surface and turn it into power for the denizens of Earth. The premise resembles that of Danny Boyle's memorable Sunshine: it's a stretch, but it doesn't beggar belief. When we meet him, Sam is nearly done with a three-year assignment that's begun to seem interminable. After all, his pretty wife and young daughter are back home, waiting for his return, and he's going a little bonkers up in the lunar station, despite the loyal companionship of a HAL-like computer named Gerty (voiced perfectly by Kevin Spacey).

The plot includes a number of twists, and to Jones' credit (he came up with the story), few of them are predictable. The computer isn't what I expected it to be, nor is Sam. The result is a thinky science-fiction flick that doesn't get bogged down in its ideas, such as they are, but also refuses to sacrifice thought and plot for knuckleheaded action sequences, of which there are precisely none. Moon is a small film, but it has transcendent touches. Clint Mansell's eerie, evocative score might be the best thing in the movie; it communicates the story's emotional pitch as well as any of the dialogue, and it even gives Rockwell's bravura acting a run for its money.

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