Love it or hate it, the culture war in the United States has been raging at a fever pitch for a decade (or more), in the media, on the political stage and certainly in the back-rooms of policy making. Kirby Dick’s latest documentary lobs a shrapnel grenade right into the centre of things with the question: “Why are many gay politicians, who choose to ‘live in the closet’ (presumably out of concern for losing their public office – but it is likely not that simple) some of the toughest anti-gay policy makers?” Of course to ask this question, Dick and company are essentially outing several governors, senators and mayors on screen which will lead, more likely than not, to a slander law-suit or three. The film on the surface is destined to be written off by hard-core Republicans (who will, I’m guessing, not bother seeing the film before writing it off) as a scarlet-letter gossip piece. Which it kind-of sort-of is. Except that, in its sensational way, it is asking the right questions. So thus it also tangentially asks if the ends justify the means for these sort of situations where “people who are not subject to the law will of course make harsh law.” Which in itself is a highly symbolic threat to the practice of democracy as kings and kingmakers sidestep their own nature in a ‘thou dost protest too much’ sort of way to deal with their own psychological hang-ups, either in their political arenas, their attempt to hang on to their own wealth and influence, or simply the upbringing of many of these folks in a time when homosexuality was treated like a brain-disorder. Perhaps Dick’s film is a demonstration of capitalism (and ‘me-ism’) at its finest: When a member of a certain group sells out that group for personal and selfish gain. Many may see the worst politicians as ‘self-promoting assholes,’ but here we have several gents willing to have a moral compromise against their own identity. One apt comment is the comparison to the job of the politician and the dance of staying in the closet. Both require crafty language, spin, and a delicate balancing of a great number of needs and obligations.
Director: Ondi Timoner (DiG!)
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 90 min
(Preamble: We Live in Public is, among many things, about the flash intrusion of the internet on our social lives, something the subject of the film, Josh Harris, anticipated in the mid-nineties. Its relevancy to the very medium upon which this review is cast is not lost on this author. This thing we are doing here, being digital people in a digital community has its ramifications that Josh’s story validly explores. The explosion of social network platforms mixed with broadband speed that marks the 21st century has grown exponentially and the surge is so great, the curve so acute that it becomes incredibly difficult to gage the present, and when something like this film is made as a record of a decade of accelerated culture, it is a bit of a wake-up call. There is so much noise, so much speed and disposability to everything we say that it is almost a necessity to be an exhibitionist if only to get your point across. In context, what Josh does, though on the surface bizarre, is ultimately a reflection of what has become commonplace. Even now I feel the impulse to be an exhibitionist as the speed by which many of us process no longer allows for subtlety of craft or comprehension. Its a strange impulse, this wrestling for permanency, for meaning, for identity. I write this conscious of your impatient eyeballs, perhaps even in spite of them.)
As mentioned in one of the opening title cards, Josh Harris is the greatest internet pioneer you never heard of. What follows in We Live in Public is not merely a chronicle of a dot.com internet guru, but something more tantalizing: a social experiment within a social experiment. On one level we are shown the ‘social experiments’ that Josh Harris inflicts upon himself and those following in his wake, experiments which are part performance art, part prophecy, all hinging upon the heightened potentials of surveillance and exhibitionism posed by the arrival of the internet. The scale and ambition of these projects, most notably Quiet: We Live in Public, are so sublimely psychotic that they were the first of their kind and incidentally, ushered in the new subgenre of entertainment known as reality television (particularly the confined social experiment variety of this type). His experiments spanned the best part of the nineties until, much like Warhol’s Factory (which is continually evoked as a parallel to this ‘movement’) the excess took its toll and the party abruptly stopped.
The chief set-piece of the film and of Josh’s legacy is perhaps his Quiet experiment. Here he created a quasi-fascist commune buried beneath New York City made up of artists and disparate individuals who volunteer to reside in a ‘futuristic’ bunker complete with living quarters (i.e. pods), social areas such as a kitchen, a bar, a church, and a shooting range, all rigged by surveillance. The experiment was to last thirty days, and as the days progressed the breaking point for some came to the surface all captured by Josh’s cameras. Director Ondi Timoner was a participant of this experiment, and captures the events with an eclectic mix of Warholian exuberance and Orwellian dread.
In his follow-up experiment, Josh rigged his apartment with surveillance cameras and microphones to become part of the first couple ever to be streamed online continuously over what appears to be a span of months. This too ends badly, as Josh confronts the psychological and emotional ramifications of these projects, and sets off on a decidedly different course in the third act of the film (and perhaps, of his life). Would you like to know more…?
“All these physical objects in our lives there is no real critique on them. Very little discussion on how these things really affect us.” So says one of the design gurus who converse with Gary Hustwit in his second documentary that takes a close look at the everyday things that most people do not think to hard about (or even think to think about.) The first chapter (at the Q&A at the Bloor Cinema during this years HotDocs festival, the director invoked the word “trilogy” and promised one more part to follow in the near future), Helvetica, took a similar look at how typeface and graphic design add such a large element to the message in all the signage and information clutter that exist in a modern urban environment. But like many a sequel, the scope gets bigger even as the overall aim remains constant. With Objectified, the mammoth subject of industrial design and its place in modern western society is tackled. Hustwit retains the crisp, clean presentation which mirrored the chosen typeface so well, and keeps El Ten Eleven on soundtrack duties who provide a wonderful musical accompaniment to the material. This may be a standard way to make a documentary, but it is best of breed.
Every object has a story. We make sense of things through narrative, and assigning personality to objects is part and parcel to this. Ever feel sad to let go of that car you had for so many years? A particular pair of shoes? Well, the documentary doesn’t really focus on those things, but the far more mundane. I doubt people get too attached to their toothbrush or potato peeler, however I do recall back in the 1990s being vaguely curious as to why we had a particular design for decades, then all of a sudden an explosion of different shapes and sizes to these objects. These are the types of things that the talking heads wax philosophically about in Objectified. And it is compelling stuff, even when it gets slightly esoteric. Designing objects solely for philosophical or semiotic questioning? Check. A Roomba as a interface for Hamster exercise? Check. But mainly the film engagingly breezes along avenues where design is comforting and perhaps even necessary for people to feel better, to be at peace.
A valid criticism of the film is that it plays as the briefest introduction to its own subject. Only minutes spent on sustainability and all the technological doodads and disposable consumer conveniences generated as each new design threatens to push out the previous (cellular phones, laptops, water bottles). I would love to see those cardboard cellular phones get accepted, not just a concept, they existed briefly before failing in the global marketplace. Or that 90% of design and material objects is aimed at only 20% of the worlds population. Or all the crap at Walmart and Dollarama that comes from China of which most is completely unneeded and in fact detrimental to living. Also, if you find the cult of Mac (or Ikea) to be baffling or offensive (some do), then you may find all the time spent on that company to be a bit much. (Yet defining oneself by their iPhone or yin-yang coffee table (as does the narrator of Fight Club) is a valid line of questioning somewhat pursued here) Although personally, I did like the insight as to how great design should be practically invisible (something hard to do with designer egos being what they are) and that must of the design these days is in the assembly of complicated components done in an automated fashion, such as a laptop chassis. Personally the film was summed up completely with the ‘sole-bag’ a ladies large purse or shopping bag with the bottom being a shoe tread. Simple, it stands up right without falling over or sagging, doesn’t get as dirty on the bottom, and looks neat without looking offensive.
At the end of the time spent with Objectified, one of the great things that a documentary (or a fictional film) can do is accomplished with flying colours (and sleek contours): You will look at the everyday world with a different eye. Now I simply cannot wait for part three.