The Art House Beat: “We Live In Public” and “Araya”
If the 21st Century is to be the age of the trans-human, we had better start looking for a better way to get there than the template offered by Josh Harris, the television-addicted nerd who nearly turned New York City into his own prison-camp version of Gilligan’s Island. “We Live In Public,” Ondi Timoner’s adrenaline-compressed film of Harris’ life and experiments can meanwhile serve as an article of evidence that we may not make it to the next stage of evolution.
Harris lost his 80 million dollar fortune through a series of self-aggrandizing internet ventures, including one in which he rigged his living space with cameras so that nerds around the world could keep him and his girlfriend under 24-hour surveillance. Before than, he created a human beehive where he experimented on his rat-like subjects until the cops shut him down on the morning of the new millennium.
Timoner is one of our great documentarians because she devotes herself so completely to her subjects. She spent ten years filming Harris, and the most valuable footage comes from his early career, when he was a leading prophet(eer) of the World Wide Web. She chronicles the dot.com boom of the 90’s with swift surety, images of world class models playing video games on the laps of millionaire nerds proclaiming a new world in which the nerds have had their revenge, where the world’s most beautiful women will pass over fields of Elvis Presleys and Jim Morrisons to get to one Bill Gates.
One wonders what alternate directions the Internet might have taken had Harris remained solvent and continued his season of popular influence, rather than expatriating himself to Ethiopia to elude his creditors and perpetuate the mythos of Gilligan’s Island. Even without his guiding interference, sites such as Facebook have seduced us into writing dossiers on ourselves that are more accurate than any FBI or CIA file. We are lucky to live in a society that is interested in such material primarily to create consumer profiles.
“We Live in Public” is unlikely to scare us into deleting our MySpace pages and fleeing to the world of flesh and blood. The step into virtual reality has been taken. Whether we enter to spy and be spied on, or to reclaim it as communication tool that can close the divisive gaps between us, remains to be seen.
The restoration of Margot Benacerraf’s 1959 documentary on a day in the life of the salt-miners and fishermen living on the Venezuelan peninsula of Araya is a must-see for lovers of both neo-realistic and modernist cinema. With the purity of its images combined with a fractured and repetitive narration, “Araya” (Nov 13-19 at the NWWF) could be the missing link between Luchino Visconti’s “La Terra Trema’ and Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad.” The final moments are as unexpected and disturbing as any in cinema history.
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