The Living Room, New York City
I’m an enthusiastic fan of Nickel Creek mandolin geek Chris Thile’s latest band, so being utterly transfixed by the shivering dynamics of the third movement from “The Blind Leaving The Blind” is a familiar feeling for me at this point. Equally impressive here were the new tunes: one billed as “both a celebration and an indictment of rye whiskey” and “Good Luck,” billed as “a Valentine’s Day/recession song (it’s a genre growing in popularity).” Bassist Paul Kowert’s occasional dashes into the foreground were a new twist—rumbling crescendo here, scalar run there, each time an unexpected highlight in the context of five sharply-dressed young shred hounds playing with such uncanny restraint. As one should expect with any venue in downtown Manhattan, the most enthusiastic cheers came with the Radiohead cover that gave them their big YouTube hit (“Packt Like Sardines In A Trendy L.E.S. Rock Club,” I think it’s called), but that’s just the familiarity factor, as it was no more or less fantastic than anything else they’d been doing all along. Which is to say, it was all fantastic. Thile’s roughshod percussive attempts to channel the glitchy side of the Brothers Greenwood—organically using his entirely unsuitable instrument—even prompted banjo player Noam Pikelny to comment: “Folks, you heard on that last song the sound of a warranty being voided on a mandolin.”
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The ‘90s will be remembered for a lot of things - grunge, Bill Clinton, the arrival of DVD and the birth of file sharing. But perhaps the biggest impact, culturally, socially, financially, and philosophically, was the rise of the Internet and the empowerment of the Dot.Com Kids. Feisty young entrepreneurs who hoped to revolutionize the new media, these free thinking uber-nerds, blessed with both brains and the chutzpah to re-imagine the burgeoning technological wilderness, took the industry (and NASDAC) by storm. Of the many fiery flash in the pans, none were as noted (and notorious) as Joshua Harris. Earning his first million with the then prescient notion of collecting online statistical data for advertisers and merchants, he soon turned his attention to an equally profound kind of web ‘performance art’. With it, Harris invented “reality television”, pushed the boundaries of acceptable social experimentation, and destroyed most of his collected commercial clout in the process.
As the subject of Ondi Timoner’s fascinating documentary, We Live in Public, viewers learn about his early success, how he built his ragtag information machine into an attempt at reinventing television. The web-based Pseudo offered streaming content as early as 1993, setting the ground rules for most of the online content (both personal and professional) seen today. With the money he made, Harris’ next decided to turn the lens on the very audience he was courting. Setting up a bunker like hotel in the basement of a New York building, he installed hundreds of cameras, created a complicated authoritarian social structure that involved interrogation rooms, personality profiles, and self-contained law enforcement. Dubbed “Quiet” many consider it to be the dawn of fact-based POV entertainment.
Others saw Harris himself as a post-modern Andy Warhol, with his Factory consisting of a pod-filled Big Brother controlled kingdom. Perhaps the most telling line of his entire spiel was an actual riff on the famed pop artist’s best known mantra. For Harris, people didn’t want a mere 15 minutes of fame. They wanted it every single day. And as Timoner - who actually participated in the Quiet experiment - points out, even that wasn’t good enough for the multi-millionaire. When he fell in love with Tanya Corrin, he brought his new gal pal into his next online brainstorm. Calling it “We Live in Public”, Harris had his New York loft fitted with hundreds of recording devices, cameras located everywhere (including the inside of the toilet bowl). The couple then simply went about their daily existence. There were tensions - his desire to have sex for the viewers being one of them - but at the beginning at least, both were up for the challenge.
Where We Live in Public gets most of its dramatic heft is not in the interpersonal clash between people (though there is plenty of that to go around). No, as the Dot.Com bubble bursts, as hundreds of businesses lose value and tank, Harris’ own financial meltdown is recorded daily for everyone to see. One particularly profound moment comes as our hero, sitting on the John, learns that he has no money in the bank. From this point on, We Live in Public turns dark and foreboding. Harris and Tanya fight. Their battles become more intense. She decides she can no longer live like a hamster in a 24 hour a day monitored cage. He abandons his project and simply disappears. Where Harris winds up - in one of three fabulous false endings - is the stuff of legend. As Timoner herself points out, even she can’t believe where the story takes us.
There is so much about We Live in Public that is mesmerizing, so much that is both shocking in its statement and knowing in its insight, that it’s hard to take in at one sitting. As she did with the music industry masterpiece DiG! , Timoner takes a relatively simple subject and deconstructs the outer layers to show the surreal substance within. Many could look at Harris as nothing more than a high tech con man, a slick huckster working in the human condition vs. ornate Bibles or Florida swampland time shares. His “art projects” today seem like nothing more than wasted YouTube temper tantrums and even with their importance to the progress of the Web, we don’t really see how anyone thought they could really be the “future” of entertainment - especially commercially. Granted, Harris was right about the Internet and people’s desire for fame. But the “promise” of Pseudo or Quiet is still far from being realized today.
Because Timoner is such an amazing filmmaker, because she understands pacing and documentary plotting better than any other director working today, We Live in Public simply sizzles. We get caught up in Harris’ vision, watch as it plays out in all its debauched, deranged ideals. With the access she had - both first hand and in follow-up - we get a better than insider’s glance at the entire nu-tech approach. There is a giddiness that’s hard to comprehend, mid ‘90s New Yorkers viewing Harris as some kind of media Messiah. If anything, he comes across as an accidental Marshall McLuhan, a suddenly rich eccentric who could see the self-produced webcam writing on the wall. That it couldn’t successfully translate into the mainstream was not Harris’ biggest flaw. That he couldn’t remove himself from being the center of attention was.
As with any classic example of the genre, We Live in Public raises as many troubling questions as it answers. Why did Harris revert to the weird clown persona “Luvvy” under stress? Why the equally unhinged fascination with Gilligan’s Island? Did he really think that something like Quiet or We Live in Public would really generate significant revenue opportunities, or was this merely a case of a crazy man with too much money and too many people saying “Yes”. While the saga seems to have a somewhat happy ending, Harris remains an enigma - albeit one we seem to recognize a whole lot easier. Ondi Timoner seems draw to individuals who confuse arrogance with ambition, who are addicted to the process as much as they are their own ego. There is no denying that Joshua Harris had vision. What he saw, and in turn, what he wanted us to see, makes We Live in Public a great cinematic experience.
This video features one static shot of Alex Turner against a white background singing into a tape recorder, and nothing else. There’s an odd humor to the whole production, as he mimes the lyrics with lazy, cheeky irony, but for most part he’s staring into the camera, and the minimalism demands attention paid to the song and the singer.
In his new documentary, Chris Rock takes on a very controversial subject. No, it’s not about race, though ethnicity and cultural factors do enter into it. It’s not about gender politics or inequalities, though they also play a part in the final discussion. It’s not about neighborhood disenfranchisement, turf wars, social agendas, or individual personalities, though we see a great deal of them as well. No, Rock’s going deep into the heart of commercial cosmetology (and the media frenzy surrounding same) to discover why black women obsess on their coiffure. In trying to help his pre-school daughters understand the difference between bad and Good Hair, the comedian uncovers a multibillion dollar industry relying on misinformation, misrepresentation, and misguided personal opinions about fashion to maintain its beauty salon stronghold.
The premise is pretty simple: Rock gets a few of his friends (including fellow comedian/filmmaker Jeff Stilson) to rally around his quest for clarity, grabs a camera, and then sets out to ask the tough questions. Always tinged with humor and wit, he confronts famous African Americans about their hair choices, from known actresses (who prefer those notorious “weaves”) to the Rev. Al Sharpton (who was introduced to his first “process” by none other than James Brown). We visit the Bronner Brothers’ Annual Hair Convention and Show in Atlanta, following four stylists from around the country who are each vying for the honor of champion in the Battle Royale competition.
There is a trip to one of the few black-owned businesses catering to hair care products for the community and a discussion of the perils inherent in straightening. Perhaps most tellingly, Rock hangs out at a local barbershop and gets the male reaction to $1000 extensions and high maintenance women. Some even suggest the inflated costs of fashion, in combination with the social desire to look “good”, causes much of the strife between black couples. Indeed, some men laugh, saying their lady will gladly not pay her rent to get her weave adjusted or changed out, while importers of the “raw material” (usually from India), sit back and count their cash.
If it wasn’t for Rock tossing in the occasionally satiric rejoinder, Good Hair would be merely shocking. Like all good gateway films, it lets the audience into an arena they would rarely be able to visit themselves. While clearly geared toward the African American population and the problems it faces, Good Hair makes several rather universal claims. Indeed, this film could easily be called “Good Body” and focus on the mind-blowing Madison Avenue trend toward skeletal models and unrealistic depictions of the female (and now male) form. It could also be called “Good Man/Woman” and focus on the unreal/unhealthy expectations placed on couples by a media bent on celebrating the less than honorable elements of the battle of the sexes. In fact, aside from the whole “nappy vs. straight” debate, this movie is really about how a people use prettiness as a reflection on their value - and how misguided that can be.
Because the focus is on hair, and the stigmas/significance attached to it, Rock finds the perfect foil for his always pointed funny business. Even in situations that you’d think were serious (most of the Indian hair comes from temples where an annual ritual sees millions shave their heads), he is on target and terrific. One of the best exchanges comes with a black market mane merchant, who doesn’t quite get the comedian’s Western references. Equally intriguing are the interviews with the Battle Royale competitors, each one offering their own arch opinion about styling, the Bronner Brothers show, and the other participants. As we get to know these people, learn their strengths and their flaws, we find ourselves handicapping the contest. The finale, while not without controversy, is one of Good Hair‘s best moments.
The most compelling insights also come from the one-on-one interviews. Former child star/ Disney TV diva Raven-Symoné proudly ‘pimps’ her hairdo, arguing that she too will one day get into the weave business. By contrast, Tracie Thoms (Death Proof) celebrates her “natural” look, arguing rather successfully that it’s more attractive and becoming than a Caucasian interpretation of what black hair should be. Poet and national treasure Dr. Maya Angelou shocks Rock when she reveals that she had her first process at age 70 (!) and rapper/actor Ice-T celebrates the “anything goes” attitude about beauty. Whatever makes a woman happy, he argues, guarantees less ‘bullsh*t’ for the man she’s with. As if to emphasize this, Rock returns to the barbershop, where the customers prove the points made on both sides. While several men compliment the entire high tech approach to attractiveness, a sole voice hollers for realism - and is quickly shouted down.
Where Rock stumbles a bit is in getting to the heart of media manipulation. Soul Train gets a shout out (the syndicated ‘urban’ response to American Bandstand is where many African American’s learned their style points), but ‘70s sensations like Afro-Sheen, or magazines like Ebony and Jet are never discussed. Similarly, the comedian never pushes his subjects to reveal the underlying reasons for their hair issues. Clearly, many of the actresses and singers believe it is a business decision, a necessity to compete in what many still see as a lily-white world. But even Good Hair is guilty of its own image manipulation. When discussing a woman’s natural look, a picture of proto-feminists mega-activist Angela Davis is flashed on the screen. It’s an image that many would argue highlights the misguided demonization and stereotyping of African Americans and their otherwise noble heritage.
Still, for its minor missteps, Good Hair is a great deal of fun. Rock could read a daily production meeting call-sheet and still find a way to make it hilarious, and as a director, Stilson makes the wise decision of showing the comic constantly interacting with his subjects. Even during the sit downs, the camera glides over to Rock as he presses a participant for more information. The Battle Royale conclusion is kind of a letdown, if only because a couple of important rules are only revealed at the end, making the win seem slightly tainted. Still, for all it has to offer, one gets the impression that Rock could never really uncover the truth about “good hair”. Like so much about self-worth and image, it’s a subject wrapped up in unanswerable riddles. Luckily, the comedian is around to make fun of them.
“Youth Tunes”, from Little Girls’ latest, Concepts.