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“We Live in Public” is about you and me and the dark side of social networking

Ondi Timoner’s film “We Live in Public” is as important a piece of cultural history as has come down the pike in the last 10 years.

Ondi Timoner knows something true and weird about the human condition circa 2009, and her film, “We Live in Public” is as important a piece of cultural history as has come down the pike in the last 10 years.

The documentary, which opens today at the Lagoon Cinema Landmark theater in Minneapolis, is ostensibly the story of Josh Harris, a whiz-kid who made a killing in the boom of the ‘90s and used his money to create a boho community in an underground bunker in New York where every bit of faux banality and bacchanalia was filmed, documented, spindled, mutilated and spat out for more viewing. But it’s more than that: It’s a film about you and me and Facebook and MySpace and the fast-morphing definitions of “ego,” “friend,” and the breakneck speed of life and human communication we’re currently undergoing.

“The thing that freaks me out is that there are only so many hours in a day, and it’s so easy to create volume online, of emails and messages and correspondence,” says Timoner from her home in Los Angeles. “So it’s like two lives we’re living at the same time, and the real one is getting more and more compromised by the virtual one. You have to ask yourself, `Why am I on here? Why am I posting this online? Why am I still on here after two hours?’ ”

Take Facebook (please), where extroverts, introverts, young and old alike join in the great big online high-school lunchroom. Depending on the day, users can feel like J.D. Salinger or Greta Garbo (make the world to go away); other days it’s a tool box, a canvas, a plaything to not be taken too seriously. It can also be a time-suck that finds users looking for something, anything, to engage us, entertain us, stroke us, validate us. All while we sit on our butts and get fatter.

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Which is why the only thing Timoner can think of to compare “We Live in Public” to is “Wall-E,” the beautiful dystopian robot-love tale that makes the point that technology is making America lazy and threatens to mute human emotion itself. To be sure, until David Fincher’s “Facebook” hits screens next year, Timoner’s doc is the most sobering testament yet to the fact that in the last 10 years we’ve become a nation of fanboys and fangirls, sitting around watching and listening to … ourselves.

“Life online is a new take on the ‘If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?’ ” says Timoner. “Did I actually live it if I didn’t post it online? Did it actually happen? Does it matter, at all, if it wasn’t somehow recorded online? And more and more, the answer is `No.’ ”

Timoner laughs when she says this, but “We Live in Public” is the sort of harrowing mirror-to-the face that will make you want to take a post-viewing shower and turn back the hands of time to when everything didn’t revolve around the Internet: “The most meaningful times of our life,” asserts Timoner, a 36-year-old single mother of one, “is when we’re all in a room together. By far. By far.”

Ironically, as an independent artist, Facebook and Twitter has been an invaluable tool for Timoner as she gets the word out about “We Live in Public,” which won the documentary grand jury award at Sundance this year.

“I think it’s a really important film for people to see,” she says. “It’s a social reality that is redefining our identity, our relationships, everything. How we live. It’s an evolutionary process we’re living through, and the film is the beacon of all of that, the harkening of all to come, and it’s the one warning shot that’s out there right now in a very visually exciting and entertaining way, with an amazing soundtrack, but when you get to the end of your 90-minute session you’ve got an identity crisis on your hands.

“I’m happy to contribute to give you that crisis. You should have that reckoning with yourself, and hopefully some sort of consciousness will be installed that wasn’t there before. I did a film about mind control (“Join Us”), and you don’t know when you’re being brainwashed. It’s the same with the Internet: It feels like you’re connecting, but you’re not. You’re more isolated.”

Timoner is something of an expert on isolation, and outsiders. The director/producer did an early documentary on songwriter Paul Westerberg (“Seeing Through Paul”), and her most notorious work previous to “Public” was the rock documentary “Dig!”  which found The Brian Jonestown Massacre feuding with The Dandy Warhols. Clearly, she’s got a bead on the male ego, the underbelly of humanity, and outsiderdom.

“I’m like that, too,” she says. “I’m attracted to subjects that somehow operate outside of the system and push the boundaries. You know, I have a narrative film in development on Robert Mapplethorpe, and he’s a great example of that. I’m not a conventional [artist], and I think that’s why they’re attracted to me, too. I’m more of a gonzo journalist in a way; I live whatever I’m making.”

To that end, Harris is the online generation’s Andy Warhol, using the tools of the day — including real men and women as lab rats — to put Warhol’s ubiquitous “15 minutes of fame” bromide to the test.

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“Josh is the poster boy for throwing spaghetti at the wall,” says Timoner. “Everything’s a game to him. Everything’s a show, and that’s good and bad. On one hand, that means everybody else is just a character in your show and there’s an emotionality missing. On the other hand, it can make for very interesting programming of your life.

“I think he was able to see how we would react to that technology because he himself sought fame so badly, and sought acknowledgement and attention — which is what he’s finally getting with this film, now. But not all of us want that. We really want connection. We really want to feel like we matter.

“There’s a deep human need for attention. Since cave paintings, we’ve been trying to leave a lasting mark, and we’ve always wanted to be remembered in some way. And now I think it’s not even about memory per se because our memories are so collectively short and it’s ADD time. It’s more about volume now. There’s just so much coming at us.”

“We Live in Public” gets to all of that through Harris, an uberexhibitionist who puts his life online in a variety of projects, the last of which ends poetically when his lover, sitting on his lap at the computer, tells him she doesn’t want to have sex with him because he’s gotten fat.

To be sure, there’s a little bit of Josh Harris in anyone who signs up to have his or her life posted and scrutinized by friends, family, and strangers. Near the end of the film, after engaging in an online diary that makes ana voog’s early webcam exploits look positively Victorian, Harris escapes to Ethiopia, away from the technology and the cult of personality he created around him. He gets active, healthy, and connected to real live human beings.

Here in the social networking arena, we all have our Ethiopias: It’s called the “off” button on the computer. Try it now. Then go see yourself in “We Live in Public,” and see if you ever want to press “on” again.