HBO focuses on famed celebrity photographer
At this point, we all know there’s a good bit of codependence at play in the forward slouch of celebrity culture. The stars, the paparazzi, the magazine editors, the club owners, the readers — we’re all hooking one another up. Some members of this Hollywood ball of collusion are giving to get, some are just getting, and some — those of us who gaze at the People magazine Star Tracks — just want to breathe in but a whiff of fame exhaust. These days, most of us understand that the paparazzi may be no guiltier than the rest.
The HBO documentary “Smash His Camera’’ is a profile of seminal paparazzo Ron Galella, 79, the guy who plagued Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for decades and who got punched in the jaw by Marlon Brando in 1973. Directed by Leon Gast of the Oscar-winning “When We Were Kings,’’ the movie doesn’t just go easy on the paparazzi. It portrays invasive candid photography of famous people as an art form. While a psychiatrist in the film compares Galella’s methodology — the stalking, the aggression — to that of a sociopath, “Smash His Camera’’ makes a stronger pitch for Galella as a national resource. Footage (from an old David Frost show) of Galella plucking a hole through Katherine Hepburn’s hedge is meant to be endearing.
Clearly, Gast has no interest in making a film that delves deeply into the social ills of the paparazzi, or delivering yet another newsmagazine-styled slap to them for bottom-feeding. He films a few roundtables of lawyers, magazine editors, and artists as they debate Galella and his work, but there’s relatively little outrage afoot. Conspicuously, Gast doesn’t even explore the paparazzi-related death of Princess Diana. He prefers to take a more curatorial approach to his subject matter — and that’s fine, if you’re a viewer who can check the need for moral judgment at the door.
Indeed, Galella, a coarse, do-or-die old timer, did capture magic. His pictures of Jackie O. eventually brought him to court, where he was smacked with a restraining order. It was Jackie who uttered the command “smash his camera’’ to one of her staff; but some of Galella’s snaps catch her beauty at its most casual, before she could fall into a pose. He calls his “Windblown Jackie’’ his Mona Lisa, and he has a point. Her smile is withholding but revealing, sweet but sad, enticing but unknowable, as her hair strands across her face. Fittingly, Andy Warhol was a fan of Galella. They both traffic in the iconography of fame, Galella from the street and Warhol from his loft.
“Smash His Camera’’ spends time browsing through Galella’s vast basement library in his New Jersey home, a massive archive of boxes boldly labeled with names from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to John Lennon and Henry Kissinger. The images are as redolent of their eras — the cars in the background, the street signage — as they are representative of the stars at various periods of their careers. Galella had a particularly ripe moment during the Studio 54 heyday, when drunken celebrities would stumble out into his waiting lens in the early morning light. Those photos are a one-of-a-kind time capsule.
As you might expect from a professional privacy invader, Galella has an unstoppable temperament. “They’re like Gestapo, these press agents,’’ he complains about the people who try to control the stars’ exposure. He doesn’t mind being hated in the least — indeed, in the case of Jackie he almost seems to perceive her contempt for him as a kind of flirtation. He lies his way into exclusive parties, and he bribes doormen for information. To get photos of Burton and Taylor on their yacht, he once spent the weekend alone in a warehouse to precede security to the location. The guy is outrageously committed to his work.
The movie seems to praise Galella for his lone passion, pointing out that the newer generations of paparazzi are more mechanical and pack-oriented. While Galella was busy finding out where Jackie was riding her bike and then developing his shots in a darkroom, today’s digital crew are waiting in clusters around the latest club for Lindsay Lohan’s staged exit. Whatever. “Smash His Camera’’ is also about Gast’s passion, his infectious fascination with the workings of an industry that our culture spends billions of dollars supporting.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.