Film Review: ME @ THE ZOO (directed by Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch)

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by Jason Rohrer on January 23, 2013

in CD-DVD,Film


Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch’s Me @ the Zoo proves the storytelling truism that the big picture may be effectively presented via minutiae.  Directed with great ingenuity and intelligence, edited from thousands of video clips as if by the gods of order, the movie uses a few years in the life of Internet phenomenon Chris Crocker as a flashpoint from which to investigate the brief, influential history of YouTube, its role in the explosion of instantly famous ordinary people, and by extension the western world’s modern obsession with celebrity.  The resulting document should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand the gift and threat of the late-period Information Age.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema documentary film review of ME @ THE ZOO

A brash gay teenager from rural Tennessee, Chris Crocker (the alter-ego and meta-persona of an actual gay kid who keeps his real name as secret as possible) is surely among the decade’s most photogenic and mesmerizing documentary foci.  At times he seems a combination of punk rocker Iggy Pop and Silence of the Lambs serial killer Jame Gumb: a bold yet vulnerable creature about whom one worries.  The sassy, cross dressing, wig- and makeup-wearing outcast (his guidance counselor suggested that he leave high school for his own safety) has exploited the popularity of his video blogs to do what so many would like to find out how to do: make money off the Internet.  He’s had appearances on national television and garnered enemies as enviable as douchebag-pundit Glenn Beck.  As a sampler on Mr. Crocker’s wry grandmother’s wall puts it, “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it.”  But what one finds onboard can make him wonder whether he has hailed “his” ship or the Flying Dutchman.  Me @ the Zoo‘s journey careers from delightful exposé to gothic horror, and it ranks among the most exhausting of moviegoing experiences.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema documentary film review of ME @ THE ZOO

Mr. Crocker’s fame is cemented by his number-one-fan status in the Britney Spears pantheon.  Like many young people, he indulges an infatuation for a favorite pop star, and in that icon’s struggles with fame and media scrutiny he recognizes a kindred spirit.  His vlog identity, likely more flamboyant and histrionic than his everyday personality, makes a tearful video admonition to “Leave Britney alone!” and scores millions of hits.  It also visits upon him a smaller-scaled but no less devastating lesson in attention overload, illustrated by a small-town boy skidding out in the biggest of media cities.  The ephemera in which he traffics is its own punishment: the words “I don’t know what else I’m qualified to do” have rarely resonated so bleakly.  In the years when previous generations were developing their identities, this boy had two, the more fabricated of which was by far the more attractive.  There is a vacancy in his eyes throughout most of the movie, a question of self not completely answerable at this stage of his development.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema documentary film review of ME @ THE ZOO

In a tragedy nearly Greek in its precision, the thing that makes Chris Crocker valuable – his outspokenness – becomes his greatest liability.  His vlog-life plays up his sexuality, his train-wreck of an absentee mother and her own tawdry upbringing, and the ambivalence with which the churchgoing grandparents who raised him view his sensationalist self-invention.  And so he and his grandparents get a depressing number of hate messages on video and telephone, as well as national-scale mudslinging from the likes of Mr. Beck… and from other YouTube practitioners.  As Mr. Crocker says at one point, “You can only exist on water, sunshine and mascara for so long,” and his attempt to find a more genuine, less enervating lifestyle constitutes the film’s bittersweet final act.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema documentary film review of ME @ THE ZOO

Early on, Mr. Crocker speaks persuasively of the ecstasy in watching his favorite celebrity on video: “I get to transform into Britney Spears!”  One may not entirely believe him, but still one is outraged that such a beautiful creature would want to be anybody else.  Later, an angrier version of himself rails that his fame is “not about Britney!”  As he matures, a development captured in efficient, dynamic visual terms by the film’s four credited editors (Jesse Haas, Matthew Sanchez, and the two extraordinary directors), he reflects that in some of his public missteps, “I was playing with perceptions of me that already existed.”  As David Quantick once wrote, “pop will eat itself.”  But within the perspective of the 1980s from which he wrote it, no one expected that someday pop would begin to eat itself in the shell.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema documentary film review of ME @ THE ZOO

photos courtesy C-Hundred Film Corporation

Me @ the Zoo
C-Hundred Film Corporation
USA, Documentary, 86 min.
Video On Demand (VOD) now available at Film Buff

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