Director: Chris Moukarbel & Valerie Veatch
Runtime: 90 minutes
I didn’t know who Chris Crocker was until last year. That tells you how frivolously I use the Internet and keep up with current affairs. I was not watching CNN when his “Leave Britney Alone” video went viral, did not see Glenn Beck audibly laugh and call him crazy on live TV and definitely was not aware he shot a pilot for MTV in 2007 that was one misfired 9-11 joke away from being picked up. No, I like most who caught his tearful defense against an angry horde of Britney Spears haters thought the YouTube clip was funny, probably staged and a complete attention grab. I still think the same, to a point, now even after watching Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch‘s documentary Me @ the Zoo. And frankly I don’t blame him if it was.
Whether Crocker was genuine in his wails back then or not, one cannot deny everything after was a carefully constructed image to garner more fame and celebrity while the iron was hot. For a transgendered boy growing up in small-town Tennessee, his entire life had to be a carefully-cultivated image in order to survive the childhood beat-downs, taunting and church backlash that area is known for when it comes to the gay and lesbian community. What the Internet and YouTube did for Chris was finally allow him to shatter all remnants of the façade he no longer found necessary. After attempting to create a gay/straight coalition at his Middle School in his refusal to hide who he was, the town began to fear for his safety. High school simply would not be a welcoming environment.
So, here was a young kid stuck at home with the grandparents who raised him after his fourteen-year old mother gave up custody that was being censored under the guise of protection. The only place he could express himself would be behind closed doors to a video camera, the potential of which couldn’t have been dreamed. The impact his candid “You want to fight me?!” rant possessed made him an overnight sensation due to its comedy, anger and universal message declaring it okay to be different. Crocker earned a legion of fans fawning over his eccentric originality that led him to film more and more videos in which his grandparents and mother would occasionally appear. Chris had found his voice and wasn’t afraid to use it.
What happens next, however, is less a testament to Crocker and more a defamation of a nation in love with anonymity. As the world became flat and the Internet connected us to far-flung corners we’d never imagine to visit, humanity devolved into snarky, opinionated cretins unconcerned with the victims they targeted via their computers. Where YouTube gave Chris the friends he never had, it also exponentially increased the enemies that will always follow him due to a rampant bigotry and hatred I’m not sure will ever be eradicated. Where the gay kid flexing twig arms and swearing at invisible foes was once a laugh riot, inspirational call to arms, or post modern entertainment, the effeminate whiner sobbing about a famous pop star is now sad, pathetic and grounds for unsolicited death wishes.
Moukarbel and Veatch aren’t merely showing us the rise and fall of an individual daring to be different. What Me @ the Zoo depicts instead is a nasty world devoted to deranged hero worship and a media too quick to vilify innocents for financial gain. We watch the paparazzi reduce pop music’s queen to tears, driving her to the point of mental breakdown and attempted suicide. And rather than acknowledge her humanity, we’re the first in line to light the fire that will incinerate her. Why support a comeback attempt by this fragile girl America once put on a pedestal as a teen role model when we can push the knife in further and call her fat, washed up and no longer worth our time? Crocker empathized with the persecution and stood up against it.
What’s funny is that his act of compassion actually turned him into society’s new whipping boy. Tastemakers grabbed hold of Crocker-like Spears years before and looked to commercialize him as a product with built-in name recognition. All eyes were now on Chris—he knew it, exploited it and ultimately got burned by it. Crocker’s hubris got the best of him, as thoughts of fame began to alter his actions. The image America wanted to see became who he was instead of the unflinching person that got him there. One wrong move is all it took for them to turn on him again, proving just how fickle and malicious humanity has become behind new, impersonal technologies. Love and hate go hand-in-hand as droves of nobodies pass judgment on everyone else.
Don’t worry about Chris Crocker or Britney Spears, though. They aren’t hurting for money or attention after a phoenix-like rise up the iTunes charts with the single “Freak of Nature” and a 2011 certified Platinum album entitled Femme Fatale respectively. No, they overcame the abuse and personal tragedies to rise off the mat and fight another day. The people we should be worried about are ourselves—a public all too willing to give fame away and take it back with a laugh at the victim’s expense. Social media has given everyone a voice, made everyone an ‘advertising partner,’ and for all intents and purposes commoditized the world. We are all part of an uncontrollable machine that has dehumanized us on a global scale by removing all consequences. Humanity has reached the cusp of extinction.
Me @ the Zoo is currently on VOD and in limited release.
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