Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Smash His Camera"

We first meet Ron Galella, the self-proclaimed “paparazzo superstar,” in his darkroom, where he talks us through the process of developing his pictures. He’s then seen going through his old notes, and fondly recalls a week in October 1971 when he “got Jackie five times.” The “Jackie” is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom he pursued with a relentlessness that some might say bordered on obsession for something like the last twenty-five years of her life. Of particular note was their encounter on September 24, 1969, when Galella got too close for her comfort and she called the police on him. “Smash his camera,” she instructed her guards.

That’s the title of Leon Gast’s documentary profile of Galella, which regards the pioneer paparazzo with a mix of admiration, disbelief, and mild censure. Gast (who directed one of the all-time great documentaries, When We Were Kings) crafts the film as both a biography, looking at his past, and a portrait of who he is today. He is seen laying out his plan to crash a banquet honoring Robert Redford—explaining his strategy, drawing maps, gearing up (it’s scored, cheekily, with heist music). He relentlessly pushes the books of his photographs. And he wanders through his massive, overflowing archives, pulling out stacks and telling tales.

The guy can spin a yarn. He’s quite a character—ballsy, funny, cheerily obtuse. “He’s sort of singularly unaware of the impression he gives people,” muses author Peter Howe. He’s a bit of a huckster, and in the words of his wife, is “tighter than the bark on a tree.” But he loves what he does, and he does it without shame (as we see most explicitly in a 1981 David Frost profile, in which he basically stalks Katherine Hepburn, buoyantly).

Gast thankfully goes to the trouble of placing Galella’s story into contexts historical (there’s a quick rundown of how the profession began, and how Galella got into it) and sociological, examining the alliance between the media, the celebrity, and the viewer, the nature of gossip, the hunger for this material. And Galella isn’t the only voice heard; Gast assembles entertaining testimonials from harsh critics like Neil Leifer and contemporaries like Liz Smith and Graydon Carter. Dick Cavett does a flawless Brando imitation in the film’s best sequence, a moment-by-moment description of the reclusive actor’s assault on a camera-toting Galella. Gast uses archival footage, Galella’s photos, and several interviews, sizzlingly intertwined; it’s a terrific section.

Gast doesn’t always exploit the opportunities he sets up in Smash His Camera—the round-tables with multiple contemporaries, for example, are seen only in tantalizingly brief segments, and the film certainly could have done with a few more critical interview subjects (the point of view of those on the other side of his lens is particularly lacking). But we can’t help but feel some affection for the guy—his good cheer, his persistence, his chutzpah. And we feel a bit of sympathy for him at the picture’s end, as the camera quietly observes him amongst a sea of paparazzi at a nothing event, a face in the crowd, just another schmuck with a camera. Here’s the guy that got there first, but he helped create an insatiable monster, and now, in his twilight years, he’s just one more guy feeding it.

"Smash His Camera" is available now on DVD, or is streaming on Netflix.

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