Sundance Review: 'Me @ The Zoo' exposes Chris Crocker
When you gaze long into the YouTube abyss, the YouTube abyss gazes into you
We credit Socrates with the observation that the unexamined life is not worth living, but for an entire generation, that's no longer particularly apt. For thousands or millions of people accustomed to posting their every thought on Twitter, their every photographed moment on Facebook and their every vocalizable emotion on YouTube, the truth is that the unexposed life is not worth living. Leave the examination for other people.
Why be self-aware, when you can make other people aware of you?
Introspection is so pre-2005, when a YouTube co-founder posted a video of himself at the zoo.
Extrospection is the new introspection.
Few people better illustrate the evolving nature of celebrity and the blurring between fame and notoriety better than Chris Crocker. Best known as The "Leave Britney Alone!" Guy, Crocker's YouTube videos have been viewed hundreds of millions of times, but among those viewers, the ratio of hate-to-love or annoyance-to-appreciation likely tips to the negative.
Sometimes flamboyant and shrill, but occasionally exhibiting the flair of a natural improv comedian, Crocker has milked his Internet persona well beyond any logical lifespan, seemingly never breaking character.
Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch's "Me @ The Zoo," playing in the US Documentary competition at Sundance, emphasizes either Crocker's dedication to the "Chris Crocker" persona, or confirms that the what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature of Crocker's performance art. While biographic details and psychological motivations are implied, "Me @ The Zoo" is enlightening precisely for how unenlightening it is. The documentary doesn't get inside the Chris Crocker phenomenon so much as it becomes another facet of the phenomenon.
Of course, the bottom line with any film focusing on this sort of cult of personality is whether or not it will play to viewers who exist outside of the cult. Crocker's fans will probably appreciate the additional context and some people on the fence will admire Crocker's confidence and his commitment to this long-running bit, but if you don't care for Chris Crocker, "Me @ The Zoo" is an awful lot of Chris Crocker. While it's never uninteresting, "Me @ The Zoo" often feels like a feature film based around the most annoying sketch character in "Saturday Night Live" history. It's not quite "Superstar," but it's not "Wayne's World" either.
Full review after the break...
Crocker was raised in a small town in Tennessee and by the time he reached middle school, his sexuality and his refusal to conform to the conservative local mores had him fearing for his life. This led to Crocker being home-schooled by his grandparents. Crocker's mother, who gave birth to him when she was 14 and who battles an array of emotional and substance issues, comes and goes, resented as more of an eccentric chum than a parental figure. The documentary depicts Crocker as a young man without any sort of peer group, cultivating virtual friendships in lieu of any real world equivalent. Crocker's grandmother and, at times, his mother temper his personality a little, but they're mostly treated as props for him to interact with.
Walking out of "Me @ The Zoo" frustrated that it didn't give you a sufficiently comprehensive picture of what makes Chris Crocker tick would be like walking out of "Surprised Kitten: The Movie" and lamenting that it didn't adequately explore all of the conditions that might shock a youthful cat.
For the most part, Moukarbel and Veatch use Crocker's video language to tell the story, often putting the camera into Crocker's hands and allowing him to maintain his control over his own image. As somebody who hasn't watched every second of Crocker's YouTube output (or, indeed, very much of it at all), I often had a hard time distinguishing between original material and YouTube material, fulfilling what I guess was the desired effect.
If there aren't always shadings to Crocker's persona, "Me @ The Zoo" is careful to accentuate the shadings to his fame. There's a heaping huge difference between the mid-level viral celebrity Crocker achieved when he was doing hair-flips and catchphrases and the worldwide sensation he became when he urged haters to take it easy on Britney Spears, eyeliner running down his face. Similarly, there's a difference between being a viral sensation and finding a way to make money off of everybody on the Internet knowing who you are.
Moukarbel and Veatch make an interesting comparison between the Britney Industrial Complex -- the network of websites and photo services kept afloat by capitalizing on the pop star, her image and her descent -- and Crocker's own attempts to turn his Britney-derived ubiquity into cash. He did a TV pilot. He recorded a song that was briefly an iTunes smash. He did a painful Sierra Mist commercial that was probably a boon to Sprite. Coincidentally, Crocker's rise coincided with the sale of YouTube to Google and the site's transition from a loose conglomeration of copyright violators, big personalities and laughing babies to a sponsor-driven business in which commodified clicks take precedence over amusing or entertaining.
Crocker declines to show the camera the one check we see him receiving from YouTube and the documentary shies from giving any details on the numerical value that can be assigned to being a polarizing figure.
If Crocker is self-aware about anything, it's that his stature is tenuous.
"I'm soon going to be a dinosaur and be extinct," he laments, before adding, "I don't know what else I'm qualified to do."
He also understands and seems to accept that being a provocateur requires only extreme reactions and not specifically love.
"I want you to be obsessed with me," he instructs one fan and later admits, "I'm the guy everyone loves to hate."
But will viewers really want to love to hate Crocker for 90 minutes at a stretch? It's one thing to lampoon one of his five-minute videos, but it's another thing to watch 90 minutes of low-def YouTube footage blown up on either the big screen. At point point, Crocker laments that Google/YouTube partnerships have caused a rise in hi-def filming and videos meant to look TV quality, but nobody will accuse "Me @ The Zoo" of being anything other than pixelated and sometimes nauseatingly jittery.
It's not spoiling anything to reveal that "Me @ The Zoo" ends with Crocker and his family watching coverage of Balloon Boy. Is that the closing point of choice between Moukarbel and Veatch want to wink and suggest that Balloon Boy and Chris have similar fame driven aspirations and similarly loose commitments to the truth? Or are the directors meaning to put Chris and Balloon Boy at opposite ends of the extrospective celebrity phenomenon? Or are they doing both? I couldn't tell you.