Is 'We Live In Public' Subject A 'Visionary Or A Buffoon'?

Documentary follows a Web entrepreneur-turned-artist, who might not be so likable, director Ondi Timoner admits.

"No one will see," he says, trying to lure his girlfriend to bed.

She turns to one of the many cameras set up throughout their apartment, intended to broadcast every moment of their relationship on the Web, and says sarcastically, "Hello!"

This moment comes around the one-hour mark in Ondi Timoner's new documentary, [movie id="415945"]"We Live In Public,"[/movie] about Web entrepreneur-turned-loony artist Josh Harris, and it perfectly captures both the smarts and the delusions of its star.

Harris became a millionaire during the dot-com boom, selling a tech consultancy business and starting an online television network called Pseudo.com. As the millennium approached, he became increasingly drawn to artistic endeavors, first staging a monthlong performance-art experiment in which 100 people lived in a bunker outfitted with surveillance cams and then setting up the apartment-based webcast with his girlfriend, Tanya.

It's pioneering work, all this, but "Public" — and, in particular, the point during which Harris propositions Tanya for the world to see — makes clear that Harris is as much a con man as he is a prophet, a savvy computer nerd one minute, a fast-talking party boy on the verge of a breakdown the next. And it all makes for a riveting viewing experience.

"I didn't know if he was a visionary or a buffoon," Timoner said as she sat alongside Harris in the MTV News offices. "I was told by everybody on my team — not everybody, but almost everybody — very vehemently, 'You cannot open the movie with him saying goodbye to his [dying] mother over a video. Everyone's going to hate your main character. I thought to myself, 'It's my job to find points to bring compassion to Josh.' "

Harris doesn't care to know if she succeeded or failed in that quest to humanize her star. He hasn't seen the documentary, which opens in New York on Friday, and is even arguing with Timoner about whether to watch it in the future so they can record the DVD commentary together.

"It was rough going," Harris said of his past experiences, from the millennial bunker to the apartment webcast to his escape to an apple farm after Pseudo tanked and his bank account bottomed out.

He doesn't want to revisit his old life and, even if he did, he'd probably have quite a different take than Timoner did. During the interview, Harris referred to Tanya as his "fake girlfriend" despite Timoner's arguments to the contrary and declared that even his pre-World Wide Web consultancy business in the mid-'80s was actually the work of an artist. After listening to Timoner describe her struggle to humanize Harris in the film, he declared, "Gee, I don't think I did very well in the film. This doesn't sound good."

But the point of "Public" is not to fall in love with its star. The documentary is a fascinating window into a time before social networking was a ubiquitous reality, when dial-up was the norm and everyone was trying to figure out how the Web would affect our lives. In this respect, Harris really did catch on to what was on the horizon years before Facebook and Twitter were ever created, even if there's a vast difference between locking artists in a camera-wired bunker and people sending out status updates to one another.

It's also a documentary about one man's downward spiral, from a guy who created a successful Internet company to someone who couldn't even get MySpace to take his ideas seriously. Yet, as Timoner argued, Harris' exploits should be viewed as visions of the future, not in monetization of the present.

"He's more interested in being first," she said of Harris, who has returned from a sojourn in Africa to jumpstart a new Internet venture, "than being viable."

Check out everything we've got on "We Live in Public."

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