“I guess I’m one of the first to be famous for not being famous.” Pausing to reflect, Chris Crocker isn’t so much explaining his popularity as he is describing the phenomenon of YouTube. And that description isn’t so much ongoing as it recalls a moment, way back in September 2007, when his immediately memed-out video, “Leave Britney Alone!” first landed on the web. “Broadcast yourself,” YouTube invited all comers in 2005, another long-ago moment when the parameters of celebrity—or maybe just the speed—changed. According to the documentary Me @ the Zoo, premiering on HBO this week, the website made it possible for users to measure one another and themselves by hits, to perform and judge, parody and adore, all the while refashioning the very idea of what it means to be a star. Or maybe just a person with fans.
Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch’s film uses Crocker’s experience as a window onto the business. He’s a helpfully self-aware subject, even at his Britney-est. Prior to the breakout video, he’d made others, in part an effort to sort out frustrations over living in Bristol, Tennessee with his Pentecostal grandparents (“They think the internet turned me gay”) and classmates who taunted and abused him (“Every day was terrible and violent”). Forced to stay home, Chris found an outlet in performing himself, in conjuring a manic but also self-determining identity out of his favorite music videos. On YouTube, he found fans and haters, and in this, he felt a connection with his beloved Britney. As her own exposure turned frightening—the film reminds you of the easiest to remember scenes, the umbrella swinging and the head shaving and the puppy in the driveway—Chris’ performance of what he imagined she was feeling, and perhaps his own feelings too, went, as they say, viral.
At first, as he re-performs the saga here, Crocker was happy with the fallout, the attention negative and not, the TV show offer, the phone call on Jimmy Kimmel. Gradually—or maybe quickly, it’s hard to tell—he also comes to see himself in relation to his mother, Pamela. At first this takes the form of comparing his image (and Britney’s) to his mom’s: they look alike, he says, and she looks young because she had him when she was just 14 years old. When Pamela returns from a tour in Iraq, traumatized by the experience, unable to find work, and soon homeless and addicted to meth as well, their relationship evolves, and so does Crocker’s sense of self-performance.