Last night HBO premiered its new video collage documentary Me @ the Zoo, a strange and depressing look at Mr. Leave Britney Alone himself, Chris Crocker. Crocker, if you are lucky enough to not remember, was a YouTube sensation who, in 2007, made an impassioned video plea begging all of us to stop harshing on Britney Spears in the wake of her disastrous comeback performance at that year's MTV Video Music Awards. It was eventually revealed that Crocker wasn't being entirely "real" in the video, he was instead giving a bizarre performance, but whatever his motivations, the video, both reviled and celebrated, made him instantly famous. For a few weeks, anyway. Me @ the Zoo catches up with Crocker in the less splashy present day, while also tracing his rise to the internet bottom.
The film, directed by Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch, originally started as a look at the general idea of internet fame, specifically the kind found on YouTube, hence its title, a reference to "Me at the Zoo," the first video ever uploaded to the site. That was perhaps too grand an ambition for these untested filmmakers, so they eventually decided to focus solely on Crocker, while touching on the bigger topics of web infamy and the celebrity-industrial complex at various points throughout the film. So mostly we get shaky-cam shots of Crocker at his grandmother's home in Tennessee, where he lives like a kooky, cooped-up madman, recording videos that are all at once angry and vulnerable, nonsensical and biting. Due to the film's smeared, elliptical quality -- videos are strung together in seemingly arbitrary fashion -- it's hard to tell when in time the particular videos are from. But for the most part it seems like the more ebullient, manic Crocker — who contorts his face into anguished devil-clown rictuses and affects odd, screeching accents — existed before the whole Britney business, and then, in the deflating, tumbling years after, Crocker retreated a bit, grew older and, if not serious exactly, slightly more aloof. It was an interesting and strangely comforting transition to watch last night, even though Crocker's recent life seems a bit off-kilter.
Crocker isn't so "crazy" anymore, if he ever really was (it's hard to tell what is character and what isn't), but he's still clawing at the fame demon, hoping to catch onto its tails and ride it... somewhere. Specifically, he's done some porn work, and he's trying to make a go of a singing career, while still making videos and getting paid as a YouTube partner. But he's also back in his grandmother's house in Tennessee, and his mother, back from a stint in Iraq, has become addicted to meth and is essentially homeless. It's oddly reassuring to watch Chris with his mother, whom he treats with guarded affection and care, because it shows him calm and rational and human. There's more than a flicker of warmth and keen intelligence inside that skinny little head of his, and I suspect that had he grown up in different circumstances, he might have applied that intellect to some more reasonable, less sensational goals. In that vein, Me @ the Zoo was a little sad. But what was really depressing about the film was what it said about us.
Like, good god do you remember how horrible everyone was to Britney Spears a few years ago? We all drove a young woman to the edge of insanity and then basically tried to push her off. What were any of us thinking?? I know the paparazzi companies made hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars off of her, and that the whole online gossip industry as we know it owes its existence to the likes of Britney, so the financial reasons I get. But sweet heavens were we not all insane people over this thing. That South Park episode where all the townspeople gather together and kill Britney Spears as some sort of ritual never struck me as more correct or damning than it did while I watched this documentary last night, which showed archives of horrible footage of Spears being viciously harassed by paparazzi, who all speak to her in mock-concerned tones while they flash-flash-flash away in her face. It's deeply unsettling and creepy and sad and a real condemnation of what we all (or many of us, anyway) found grotesquely entertaining for the latter half of the last decade. Of course Britney was not the pap culture's only victim, but she certainly was its mascot there for a while.
Crocker too was the subject of some pretty unbelievable vitriol. Though the argument can be made that he was deliberately inviting that kind of attention, that doesn't mean that we (big, broad We, not you, necessarily) should have responded the way that we did. Obviously the bulk of the criticism was laced with anti-queer language (Crocker identifies as transgendered, though does not play any pronoun games or seem to be after any hormone treatments or surgeries), which speaks to a bigger problem than simply the cruel anonymity of the internet, but that it was such an allowed joke, all this piling on this lonely, maybe unstable young man, is what was such a glum, embarrassing bummer to watch and remember. God that branch of popular culture was so ugly. Is so ugly? It's hard to say if it's over or not, though some signs suggest it might be. We don't seem quite as mean and awful these days, do we? Perez Hilton has calmed down, TMZ even seems a little softer. Lindsay Lohan had a little scare recently but mostly things seem OK, and Britney is gainfully employed on The X Factor. Of course we have yet to see her on the show, and a whole new wave of anti-Britney press might indeed be ushered in by the its premiere, but for now I'm hopeful, despite rumors from the set that she's not all there.
But yes, many really damning things about Americans' response to certain cultural stimuli were subtly or indirectly said in Me @ the Zoo. Maybe that's the real meaning of the title. The "Me" isn't Chris or Britney, standing in cages being watched (cages they partially put themselves in, unlike zoo animals, obviously), but it's us. We're the "Me," throwing peanuts and tapping the glass. I hope we've grown out of that behavior, because last night's reminder of the way things recently were was a queasy-making modern history lesson. Sorry, guys.