Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Leon Gast's SMASH HIS CAMERA: the wonders of a particular paparazzo

For those of you old enough to recall the burgeoning days of the paparazzi -- the Italian slang word that came to fashion internationally and described the hordes of photographers that surround celebrities like gnats, mosquitoes or other unwanted flying insects (this also constitutes the word's derivation) -- the name Ron Galella should also ring a bell.  First seen, by TrustMovies at least, on film in La Dolce Vita, Italian paparazzi came to America via Mr. Galella, who is their most famous exponent on these shores and who is, I imagine, of Italian descent. Most famous for his stalking (and his endless array of photographs) of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, America's most famous paparazzo is now the subject of a new documentary from Leon Gast (of When We Were Kings) entitled SMASH HIS CAMERA, the title of which doubles as the directive Jackie gave her secret service watchdogs regarding how to handle the ever-encroaching photographer.

You will learn all this and more (if you didn't already know it) from Mr. Gast's film (the director is shown at left).  Though whether you will want to is another matter. We watched the film at home on a large, wide-screen TV, which certainly made the work of this "noted" photographer pop.  As photographs, however, to my eye, most of them are only so-so.  Take out the celebrity and replace her/him with Ms/Mr. Nobody, and -- that's right -- nobody would pay attention.  But in our increasingly celebrity-crazed culture (though I must say the celebrities do seem to be trending down-scale), that's all you need.

What makes the movie moderately interesting is Mr. Galella himself, whom we see back in the day (just below) and now (two photos below).  His obsession with Jackie K.O. seems exactly that, and his constant stalking/photographing could drive anyone a little nuts. In a moment of rare and rather simple-minded reflection, the photographer analyzes himself and tells us that he probably was doing all this because he didn't have a girlfriend at the time. Duh. He soon had a wife, however, one who has lasted for decades and appears to provide definition to the Biblical word "helpmeet."

Along the way, we hear from yea-sayers and nay-sayers.  Gossip queen Liz Smith is one of the former, who notes that because Jackie is sort-of smiling in some of the photos Galella took, this may mean that she secretly, maybe was kinda fond of the guy and/or his work. Hmmm.)  Artist Chuck Close is one of the later, as are attorney's who worked for Ms Jackie.  Attorneys who worked/work for Galella, of course, feel differently, and one of the more interesting moments in the film comes as they argue about the nature and legality of what Galella was (and is still) doing.

Celebrities and their "reporters" have always been with us, as one of the interviewees reminds us, suggesting that the Pharaohs probably had their own instant biographers. To my mind, the paparazzi are the equivalent of visual gossip columnists. Celebrities, after all, enjoy very privileged places in the world, so perhaps they should think of these shutterbugs as necessary evils, something to be put up with in exchange for living such gilded lives. Or a better analogy: If celebrity, as has been said, is like really good, often-as-you-want-it sex, think of paparazzi as the STDs.

Back to the movie:  it's far too repetitive.  Despite blips of other celebs (Taylor and Burton on their yacht, with Liz putting up outdoor "curtains" to block the view as hordes of tourist boats pass by; some time spent on Michael Jacksonbelow), we keep coming back and back to Jackie until -- who'd a thunk it -- even she beings to bore.  And then she's dead.  And Galella feels bad.

I don't dislike Galella, or care that much about what he does, but unless you're simply celebrity-besotted, this movie is finally too long and too much. And though it appears to deal with subjects such as celebrity & privacy, art & commerce, it really has little to say or show that proves original.

Smash His Camera, from Magnolia Pictures, open this Friday, July 30, in New York City at the Cinema Village, with no other theatrical playdates apparently scheduled by the distributor.  This may be because the film, an HBO documentary, has already been shown via that for-pay cable channel and undoubtedly will be again.

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