Me @ The Zoo
If you only know the Tennessee teenager Chris Crocker from his histrionic "Leave Britney Alone," probably the most-watched homemade YouTube video up to that time, and, like me, dismissed him as a flaky attention whore, prepare yourself: "Me@the Zoo" is documentary exploration on several levels that, through the triple focus of the rise of instant fame via the Internet, the extremely troubled life of a gay teen so bullied he is basically a prisoner in his house, and the even more troubled life of the singer Britney Spears, is as searing an indictment of our current trash culture as anything Roger Moore or Morgan Spurlock could have done.
The film starts and ends with a YouTube video of a cat "playing" a piano, as vivid a metaphor as any for the way the Internet, and YouTube in particular, has made "superstars" of both house pets and do-it-yourself teenage (and frequently younger) bedroom monologists.
Through the lens -- literally -- of Chris Crocker, a young man who was reborn when he received his first camcorder and mastered the art of the upload, we get a vision of Hell as it is lived in Bristol, Tenn., a hardscrabble mountain town where Crocker lives with his grandparents. His mother, we learn, had him when she was only 15, and the two have a relationship closer to siblings than mother-son, with the son ever more frequently taking on the duties of a caregiver.
We get a glimpse of Crocker as an infant in a home movie, and it is immediately apparent that his extreme effeminacy was with him for a long, long time. As he entered school, his mannerisms inevitably became a magnet for -- bullying isn’t a strong enough word -- "persecution" may be more apt.
When he tried to start a Gay-Straight Alliance, the school’s students, administrators and teachers became so hostile that "everyone agreed" that he should be home schooled. The only problem was that his much put-upon grandmother was working while taking care of his addled grandfather. As for his mother (the father is never mentioned, if Chris even knows who he was), she is at best a distant parent.
Eventually, just to do something and get out of her confining one-street-light town, she goes into the Army, where she is promptly deployed to Iraq. Not surprisingly, she comes back a basket case and quickly slips into meth addiction, prostitution and homelessness.
Her son, meanwhile, has been riding the wave of online videos. Starting with the Neanderthal technology of AOL, and quickly graduating to MySpace, Crocker finally finds his true home, his only really home (wait, take out the "real") on the nascent YouTube.
The title of the film is the name of the first-ever uploaded YouTube video. One of the many threads that make this such a complex documentary gives a fascinating history of how YouTube evolved from a modest Silicon Valley start-up to a giant with so much potential that Google bought it for well over $1 billion (at a time when it wasn’t making any money), and the more recent evolution from an anarchic depot of videos from anywhere into a cynical enterprise where teen girls putting on makeup is valued for their potential to bring eyeballs to the accompanying advertising, at the expense of video superstars like Crocker.
It’s easy to see the affinity Crocker feels for Britney Spears. A former child star growing up in the spotlight of cameras becomes a pop sensation in her teens. By her twenties, she is so hounded by paparazzi that she has a series of mental breakdowns, and a comeback (on the "MTV Video Awards" show) makes her a universal target of ridicule.
Sound familiar? The parallels between Michael Jackson and Spears are scary, but even more terrifying is the footage of Spears literally running for her life as dozens of paparazzi chase her through the streets of Los Angeles.
It was after that disastrous performance of "Gimme More," where Spears probably should have been wearing a little more that her career seriously went into meltdown -- inspired Crocker’s most famous video.
"Leave Britney alone!" quickly became a catchword. Some of the scariest parts of "Me at the Zoo" are the people -- mostly girls, but a few boys and some adult women -- lip-synching Crocker’s videos word for word while matching his every eye scrunch, hair toss and tearful outburst.
The rest of the story is sadly so archetypal it would make an episode of VH1’s "Behind the Music": A sharpie Hollywood agent expresses interest. He goes out to La-La Land -- hitchhikes, actually -- takes in meetings with various network suits, begins filming a pilot for a reality show, is recognized on the street, goes on talk shows and then ... the fall.
On Sept. 11 (2007, I believe), Crocker released a video in which he said he didn’t care about "September 11th" because Britney still wasn’t well. Cue to John Lennon’s statement that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Calls for boycotts, vicious videos showing Crocker dolls and effigies being tortured, phone calls ... and the cancellation of his series.
In a sequence that looks as though it could have been filmed by John Waters or Russ Meyers, Crocker is reduced to pole dancing in West Hollywood clubs where he is regarded as a media freak. Defeated, he returns to his hometown, where a few checks form Google for bringing eyeballs to their empire help pay for a few luxuries, such as hotel room for his mother when she is nearly arrested for being indigent.
Crocker shows himself as a highly motivated raw talent with a gift for mimicry and a real innate sense of depth in odd ways. Considering all that he has been through at such a young age, the very fact that he has not killed himself is encouraging.
If there are any heroes in this sad tale, it’s his grandparents, who represent the very best of that tough Scotch-Irish hillbilly stock that populates the Appalachian Mountains. His grandmother, in her quiet, Stoic way, supports Crocker as much as her religious beliefs will allow. Her grandfather is turned away by his own church, whose board condemns him for allowing Chris, it seems, to exist at all.
The filmmakers Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch are to be strongly commended for such an excellent job organizing what must have been thousands of hours of videos, as well as integrating the various iterations of the Internet. If anyone ever had any doubts that Andy Warhol’s famous pronouncement that "in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes" has resulted in a media-dominated dystopia, this movie will convince you as well as depress the hell out of you.
The film is scheduled to premier on HBO on June 25, 2012. If you don’t own HBO, buy it for at least a week; worth it.
This article is part of our "Frameline 36" series. Want to read more?
Here's the full list»