Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Old School Paparazzi: Smash His Camera

Ron Galella’s photographs have hung on the walls of some of the world’s finest museums and earned him several restraining orders. A notorious pioneer of ambush celebrity photojournalism, Galella developed tactics that pushed the paparazzi envelope into stalkerazzi territory. As a result, people have plenty of things to say about him in Leon Gast’s documentary profile Smash His Camera (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In the film, attorney Floyd Abrams calls Galella “the price tag of the First Amendment,” an apt enough description to start with. Galella took photos of just about every major celebrity, whether they wanted him to or not. However, Galella’s professional interest in Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bordered on the obsessive, resulting in legal action and restraining orders. One can begrudgingly admire his tenacity pursuing voluntary celebrities, suffering a broken jaw courtesy of Marlon Brando in one infamous dustup, but he seems to have crossed all sorts of lines with the former First Lady. After all, she only wanted to raise her children away from prying eyes.

Regardless of the feelings he might inspire, Gast makes it clear how directly Galella contributed to the rise of our vapid celebrity culture. Constantly immortalizing the famous in less than edifying positions, he accelerated Hollywood’s transition from classy to Kardashian. We also see him making the most of his fifteen minutes on talk shows like Dick Cavett (serving as a timely reminder of how dull television was in the 1970’s).

Best known for documenting the Foreman-Ali “Rumble in the Jungle” in When We Were Kings, Gast clearly has a keen understanding of the phenomenon of fame. Indeed, he presents another fascinating case study in Galella. Though he never outright challenges the paparazzo on camera, he gives plenty of time to Galella’s critics, including a withering assessment of his artistic merits from artist Chuck Close.

As an interview subject himself, Galella definitely brings the dish from his decades of scandal-mongering. Of course, he understands what is required of him—he is the ultimate celebrity expert. Still, it is obvious Galella finds Hollywood’s current crop of beautiful people distinctly boring as compared to the Brandos and Hepburns of his heyday. Yet, they are a product of the environment he helped wrought.

Fortunately, you do not have to like Galella to enjoy Smash. Nicely balancing tabloid intrigue with meatier issues, it is a relatively even-handed presentation of some rather controversial cultural history. It opens this Friday (7/30) in New York at the Cinema Village.