REVIEW: Revealing Smash His Camera Turns Lens on Paparazzo Legend
Dick Cavett is resting comfortably in the hammock-shaped shadow conjoining the Venn diagrammed lives of Ron Galella and Hugh Hefner. He appears as a deadpan raconteur in both Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel and Smash His Camera, two films out this week that march two more wounded 20th-centurions through documentary rehab. Cavett was of course a nexus of pop culture in the '60s and '70s, when these two hustlers were making their names on the backs of naked women (Hefner) and frightened celebrities (Galella). He has been called upon as an expert witness in what is starting to feel like a grand jury, multi-documentary effort to determine just how we got into the state we're in now.
That suggestion is, perhaps, too generous: Mostly these are vanity docs, a higher species of television biography that focus on relatively obscure or underappreciated public figures, functioning as a kind of under-the-wire correction to an aged subject's reputation. You get the feeling that Galella has been ringing that same bell for decades: At 77, the famed paparazzo is still humping around New York with his camera and battery packs, still staking out film shoots and the odd premiere, elbow-to-elbow with the rabid shutterbugs who are his true legacy. Self-mythology radiates from him with an intensity only those who have avoided self-illumination altogether can maintain.
Director Leon Gast (When We Were Kings) has done some impressive, well-layered digging: In addition to Cavett, who recounts the night Marlon Brando knocked out five of Galella's teeth for failing to yield, he interviewed both sides of the legal team involved in a harassment suit Jackie O. brought against him, photographers and photo editors from his heyday, art curators, and famed portraitist Chuck Close. A loose case takes shape for Galella as an accidental artist (he was treated to a retrospective at MoMA and has published multiple books); he is more convincing as a compulsive with a celebrity fixation, although it could be argued that in the late 20th century the former and the latter became the same thing. It's no coincidence that Andy Warhol named Galella as his favorite photographer.
Gast examines the ethical quagmire that Galella's work opened up, and the moment when moral discretion -- it may be legal for me to take out a camera and shoot 57 pictures of your children playing in a park, but is it right? -- succumbed to the pat defense of supply and demand. "Why should I be deprived of my right to make a living?" Galella asks. It reminded me of a childhood memory the recently deceased Daniel Schorr included in his autobiography. "That's the trouble with you Americans," his Eastern European uncle, a law student, rebuking Schorr's citation of his right, as an American, to do as he pleased. "You know all about your rights and you don't know anything about your responsibilities!" The attempt to go a little deeper into photo-stalking as a calling results in one of Galella's syntactical mind-benders: "Paparazzi is a tool that must be used to capture celebrities as they really are, in a more truthful light."
Ruthlessly revealing stars to be more like us has the convenient upside of making us more easily equitable with them, a cultural paradigm shift that helped usher in everything from bad bikini body photospreads to reality television. It also helped make Galella himself a quasi-celebrity, a status he cherishes: movie-worshipper Hefner says the star he received on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is his greatest achievement; Smash His Camera ends with Galella creating his own Grauman's-style imprint outside his house. "She was my girlfriend, in a way," he says of Jackie O., a statement that is the second most revealing moment in Steal His Camera. The first is the revelation of the proudly tacky New Jersey Italian home he shares with his wife of several decades. In the back is an extensive Florentine garden he fills exclusively with cheap, fake potted flowers.
"He loved her," one of his defenders says of the long-standing feud with Onassis and her children. "They may have perceived that they were in harm's way, but he didn't feel that." In a way it's a twisted summation of our relationship with our chosen gods; it's also the perfect description of a sociopath.
Fittingly, there is something both thrilling and deeply unpleasant about looking at Galella's body of work -- there is casual genius in some of the captured moments, a combination of access, timing, and luck, with the subject almost always carrying most of the image's weight. Galella's aesthetic runs the short gamut from candid to predatory, but by sheer stamina -- hundreds of thousands of his photographs are labeled by their subject and held in a kind of shoebox mausoleum -- he has amassed a cultural chronicle of stirring but also chilling specificity: It speaks of the past and warns of the future at once.