We just finished up with the Silverdocs Film Festival here in D.C., just in time for HBO to begin its own summer festival of documentaries. HBO’s docs always manage to be some of the best out there, even when many of them don’t make it to limited runs at theaters. HBO’s latest release, Me @ the Zoo, premiered last night. The film got some notice at Sundance and can be found playing on the channel all this month.
Me @ the Zoo is essentially a biography of the life of Chris Crocker, a hard-core Britney Spears fan who became briefly famous for his “Leave Britney Alone” video that he posted on YouTube. His video became an internet meme back when the very idea of a viral video was still in its infancy. The film looks at the community we created online, how it defined our culture, and how it affected the life of one Britney superfan. It’s a surprisingly powerful film.
We are now headlong into the age of reality TV. The celebrity news cycle gives you hourly updates on your favorite stars. Social media has ingrained itself into virtually every aspect of our culture. We’ve built a community, but one that exists in an entirely public sphere. Fame seems to be as close as it ever was, and soothsayer Andy Warhol must be laughing at us from the great beyond.
Early on, Me @ the Zoo features a machine gun attack of viral videos and noise. It gets irritating after a while, but I realize that this is merely a condensed version of our daily interwebs intake. This must be what it sounds like if all the viral videos we watched were put together back-to-back and skimmed through at high volume. The result is an ADD headshot explosion of grating sounds and unpleasant imagery. This can’t be healthy. It works effectively in the film, as you get the overpowering feeling that it probably isn’t good for our culture to inhale all this nonsense ad nauseam.
Crocker himself is certainly a divisive personality. The film’s editing echoes this. He is oft times hyperactive and loud, even during his more solemn moments. For someone who often wears a dress to walk around in his small Tennessee town, he is certainly ballsy. It has to take a certain kind of uncanny tenacity to court fame so openly, and to watch his life juxtaposed next to Britney’s public meltdown is rather distressing, not to mention being a witty and touching move by the filmmakers. He really meant it when he asked us to leave Britney alone, although we didn’t realize (and I don’t think he did either) that he was probably crying at the world on behalf his mother. With three generations of prostitutes above him, the world must certainly look like a place that needs escaping from. This is a far more depressing film than someone who reads a simple synopsis would at all be prepared for.
Directors Valerie Veatch and Chris Moukarbel know what they’re doing here. They’ve sequenced this story correctly as to make it about something bigger than just a boy in a viral video. The joy, hatred and disgust that seethes from the internet clips they choose tells the story of this new culture of ours; a strangely xenophobic civilization that can now have a public opinion while also enjoying the comfort of hiding behind a computer screen. The effect is mostly sorrowing, but there is some joy to be found here.
The most amazing moment in the film comes with the release of Crocker’s first single. I don’t know all that much about pop music. My collection of Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and Bjork records might make me unqualified to judge Crocker’s song, but it sounds to me as if it’s something exactly like Britney would sing if she still could. A catchy chorus with Auto-Tune overload; it even comes complete with an oversexed video that Grandma Crocker isn’t too fond of (one of the best scenes in the movie).
There is a problem with the ending. After Crocker’s story is told, we are joined by the Crocker family as they watch TV in their living room. “The Balloon Boy” story breaks on TV, and the credits roll. Fame, forced or not, comes full circle with this ending, and it makes sense why the directors choose it. However, something just doesn’t ring right about it. The internet’s reaction to Balloon Boy was to batten down the hatches and close all the pools. Internet memes were born out of that planned attack, and later, forced internet memes were birthed out of irony. Perhaps the film needed to delve further into the web’s future. The parallel is there, and it seems a missed opportunity that it isn’t explored here.
Meanwhile, I’m still holding my breath for a documentary on Nico Nico Douga and 4Chan to come out.