(2009)4.5Nathan SouthernLeon Gast's Smash His Camera qualifies, hands down, as one of the most fascinating releases of the summer movie season. It's a biographical portrait of one of the most alternately revered and loathed men in show business, self-styled mega-paparazzi Ron Galella, and among other things, the film's success (and validity) can be measured via its wondrous tonal ambiguities. Within a documentary framework, Gast travels the Citizen Kane route, surrounding his subject with interviewees who react to Galella with responses that the director contrasts ad extremis, typing the photographer as everything from bottom-feeding vermin to a pop-culture hero. We walk away reasoning that all of these interpretations may be paradoxically valid -- that Galella is a man simply riddled with the complexities and contradictions of life, on a level so absurd that it makes him a quintessential documentary subject.
Nor does Galella's self-presentation make our feelings toward him any easier to resolve. He's supremely warm and charming, quick, passionate, and sincere about his work, and above all else, almost diabolically clever, and these elements prompt our fondness for the man. It's difficult, for example, not to revere a celebrity photographer who grew so determined to shoot Liz Taylor and Richard Burton on their private yacht that he paid off a janitor to temporarily inhabit the top floor of an abandoned building opposite the ship, stationed himself there over the weekend with bags of groceries, and repeatedly photographed the "it couple" from a lofty height, with a telephoto lens. The film reminds us that Galella didn't simply gatecrash celebrity parties to snap photos -- he invented the concept of celebrity party gatecrashing, copied by hundreds of followers in his wake, which is a fairly remarkable claim to fame given the commonality of that ploy in the early 21st century. Without belaboring the point, Gast also cleanly establishes the idea of Galella as a consummate photographic craftsperson, who seems completely attuned, for example, to the nuances of darkroom work, and so attentive to the quality of light in one particular photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (which appears adequate to us) that he refuses to accept this exposure as the final result. Few of Galella's paparazzi successors would likely notice or even care about such a minor detail; the fact that Galella dotes on the pictures with paternal attention and care makes him unique, and illustrates the sincerity of his efforts to raise celebrity photography to the level of visual art.
Yet at the same time, a darker side of Galella emerges throughout the film, exemplified by his almost pathologically obsessive attempts to photograph an uncooperative Onassis in public for weeks and months and years, until a court finally threatened the photographer with six years' incarceration should he continue. In this instance (a subtopic that Gast wisely revisits throughout the film), whatever admiration we feel toward the paparazzo is somewhat tempered by an onset of queasiness, the sense that Galella's behavior around Onassis teetered on the verge of abuse.
Much of the film's success can be attributed to the fluidity of the director's presentation. Gast draws from a treasure trove of sources, including contemporary footage of Galella (whom we join on a hunt for Robert Redford), hundreds of archival stills and film (including cutaways to Fellini's La Dolce Vita), discussions with interviewees who serve up a blizzard of hilarious and colorful anecdotes, and most intriguingly, several tours of Galella's photographic archives -- rooms so labyrinthine and so packed with material that they invite comparison to Borges' Library of Babel. Given the heterogeneity of elements interpolated into the film, one can imagine it feeling misshapen or haphazard in less-skilled hands, but that never once happens here -- Gast's editing devices fly so far under the radar that the final results are seamless throughout.
Most admirable, however, is the fact that Gast never leaves the material on the level of Galella's personal chronicle. He uses that life merely as a touchstone -- a springboard to broader, multi-layered issues about the right to privacy of public figures, freedom of speech, the nature of celebrity in America, and a host of other maddeningly ambitious topics, seemingly difficult to summarize in a neat and tidy package but covered adequately here and inviting further discussion after the final credits roll.
Years before the word "paparazzi" had any meaning for most Americans, Ron Galella exemplified the new breed of celebrity photographers who specialized in shots of stars with their guards down, and he was wildly successful in the 1960s and '70s while also making more than a few enemies among the wealthy and famous. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, one of Galella's favorite subjects, took him to court in 1972 to prevent him from obsessively following her (Galella was given a restraining order preventing him from coming within 150 feet of her for the rest of her life), while in 1973 Marlon Brando took a more direct approach, punching the photographer in the face and breaking his jaw as Galella tried to snap his picture. While Galella seemingly has little sense of shame or propriety about his work, he also had a gift for capturing exciting images on the run, and unlike most of his peers his work has been shown in galleries around the world and he's widely regarded as the most gifted artist in his chosen field. Filmmaker Leon Gast offers a look at the public and private sides of Ron Galella in the documentary Smash His Camera, in which he talks about his career, his attitude abut celebrity culture, and his run-ins with some of his subjects. Smash His Camera was an official selection at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.