What we know so far about the Internet is that it overrides our brains, upends our basic notion of commerce and, in its spare time, brings down governments. It also hurts feelings, but who has time for feelings? The stream is rushing so quickly that it will probably be many decades before we can look back and make precise sense of the cultural impact of social networks, viral videos and our relentless fixation on celebrityhood.
Harder still is to capture all this movement in something as measured and intentional as a documentary film, unless you want to make a clinical and sterile project about “the Internet.” (Zzzz.) Something bigger than all of us is lurking about, and that beast is subtly and beautifully brushed up against in “Me @ the Zoo,” Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch’s thoughtful yet erratic profile of one young man’s online experience that led to a disturbing journey into overexposure.
The film, which airs Monday night on HBO, follows Chris Crocker, who discovered solace online as a small-town gay teenager in Tennessee. You know him, most likely, from his 43-million-hit “Leave Britney Alone!” YouTube tirade from 2007, a mascara-streaked conniption delivered from a close-up camera angle shot underneath his bedroom curtain.
The video catapulted Crocker into the realm of keyboard-playing kitty cats and “David After Dentist,” an imitation of fame that brings some remuneration while it plunges its “star” into a white-hot realm of attention and blowback. In Crocker’s case, it brought about fascination, faux-adulation, parody and an ugly reverb of homophobia and transphobia.
“Me @ the Zoo,” which takes its title from the first video uploaded to YouTube (which showed one of YouTube’s founders on a trip to the zoo), spends its first hour assembling an artful and thought-provoking collage: Who is this fey creature and how did he get so obsessed with a pop star? The film is a guided tour through a hall of mirrors — when the fan becomes a celebrity based on his emulation of a celebrity. What, the film ponders, is the difference between a star and a fan anymore? Eventually, “Me @ the Zoo” peels back the story behind the story — where Crocker came from, but also the void into which he falls.
Bully abuse had forced him to quit high school and live almost as a hermit. Most of his time, he says, is and was spent at his grandparents’ house (where he lives) making videos and posting them online. For reasons that entice and confound people attempting to monetize the magic of the Internet, Crocker became an overnight online sensation in 2006, in his late teens, with some of his proudly effeminate, twangy video monologues. One of his early viral successes was a comic tutorial on how to flip one’s hair extensions with attitude.
The “Leave Britney Alone!” clip brought him closer to the flame — too close, it turns out. He made trips to Hollywood, appeared on talk shows and walked red carpets, exposing himself literally and figuratively. There were hints of television deals with MTV and others. But nothing, ultimately, begot nothing and Crocker returned home, although not empty-handed: Google sends him a low-four-figure check each month, a piece of the ad revenue his Web antics generate. His mother, who had Crocker when she was 14, returns from the Iraq war and lapses between homelessness and hospital psychiatric wards. “Me @ the Zoo” is much deeper and more forlorn than a typical media study.
He keeps making videos, to the exasperation of his patient and occasionally bemused grandmother. He tries different looks, veering between androgyny and glamour; records a pop song; considers acting in porn. He entices and then rejects the feedback from his online fans. It’s never clear whether he’s in control of his feelings or not, whether he’s all there or merely pretending to come unhinged. Being the village idiot takes more work than ever.
“It got me to thinking,” Crocker muses. “If so many people [online] are determined to tell me I’m not famous, then that counts for something.”
(90 minutes) premieres Monday at
9 p.m. on HBO.