Rarely do you emerge from a documentary having learned nothing new that's worth learning. With Smash His Camera, this triviality is only partly attributable to the familiarity of paparazzo Ron Galella's work and the ubiquity of the profession which he all but invented (at least in America). Leon Gast's profile of the photographer is not devoid of entertainment value or unhelpful in understanding the history of photojournalism, however, the movie is as ephemeral as one of Galella's snapshots of a coked out, B-list celeb exiting Studio 54 circa 1975. The doc's insignificance in the grand scheme of things won't prevent it from attracting viewers.
Ron has a lot to answer for, but it's at least ten years too late to call him to account for the dark side of celebrity journalism. (Is there a bright side?) The restructuring of the publishing and TV industries forced by the Internet, plus the rise of social media and camera-equipped PDAs, has rendered Galella obsolete. OK, that's a slight exaggeration. But even he would admit that, at age 79 and walking with a pronounced limp, he's no longer nimble enough to keep up with his baby-faced subjects and scoop younger competitors. And the competition isn't restricted to professionals. Anyone with a cell phone can snap a pic of Brangelina and sell it to the tabloids or TMZ.
What's disappointing about Smash His Camera is that it's short on juicy details. Did you know Galella and his wife, Betty, keep bunny rabbits as pets? Did you know he loves to eat hero sandwiches? This is what passes for gossip in a movie about the man who whet the public's appetite for it like no one else. As for divulging tips of the trade, Galella says it's a good idea to be at a destination before the celebrity you want to shoot arrives. And a disguise never hurts when you're trying to ambush elusive prey. Wow. Heady stuff. To be fair, Galella comes off as the consummate pro. He proves that being a top-notch shutterbug is 85% preparation and logistics, 10% talent and 5% risk-taking. How far are you willing to push it? What are you willing to do to get that shot?
The film's title comes from an instruction Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis shouted to her Secret Service detail while Galella was stalking her one day in 1971 in Manhattan. Galella's infatuation with Jackie O resulted in his famous shot, "Windblown Jackie" (which he calls his Mona Lisa), and to a long court battle pitting her right to privacy against his First Amendment rights as a member of the press. Galella's infatuation with Jackie is understandable, even if you object to the methods, tame by today's standards, he employed. Another of Galella's famous subjects, Marlon Brando, punched him in the face, which led to a cash settlement and one of Galella's most memorable stunts: wearing a football helmet around Brando thereafter.
Dick Cavett, who was with Brando at the time of the assault, opines that Galella has a sense of humor, unlike some of his colleagues. Evidently, he takes himself seriously only insofar as he wants to make as much money as possible from his forty-year body of work. Witness the vast archives in the basement of his Soprano-esque New Jersey home, and the two archivists he employs to make sure the photos keep spinning-off cash. And witness his tenacious efforts to thrust a copy of his latest book, No Pictures, into Robert Redford's hands during an event at The Waldorf Astoria.
Galella's personal charm enforces the impression that Gast's inclusion of a roundtable debate on the merits of his work by photography experts is overblown if not completely ludicrous, since his photos do sell as art. Where legal issues are concerned, heated discussions between the lawyers from both sides of the Jackie O litigation are trumped by attorney Floyd Abrams' summation: "He's really the price tag of the First Amendment." Other talking heads offer vastly divergent assessments of Galella's contribution to society. Gossip columnist Liz Smith and magazine editors Graydon Carter and Bonnie Fuller are naturally admirers, while saloonkeeper Elaine Kaufman and former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving are among those voicing nasty assessments. Galella should consider suing for slander, for the publicity if nothing else.
Director Gast specializes in profiles of athletes and musicians and won an Oscar for his documentary When We Were Kings about the 1974 Ali-Foreman bout in Africa. Here, he strains to make his subject seem worthy of the scrutiny. (Hiring Roger Rosenblatt as a creative consultant smacks of a desperate attempt to lend legitimacy.) Nevertheless, he does make the vital point, contra all the venomous condescension aimed at Galella, that the relationship between the paparazzi and their poor, besieged celebrity subjects is mutually beneficial. And this alliance includes print publishers and TV producers, as well as consumers.
But again, what's missing from Smash is Camera is the dirt. You don't become such a polarizing figure--either an "obscure bottom-feeder" or "the Pope of Paparazzi"--just by being in the right place at the right time, always carrying a fresh set of batteries and knowing your way around ballrooms and darkrooms. More juicy insider stuff is what we're clamoring to hear.
Distributor: Magnolia Films
Director: Leon Gast
Producers: Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire
Rating: PG-13 for brief language and nudity
Running time: 87 min.
Release date: July 30 ltd.