One of the most unintendedly hilarious arcs of Leon Gast’s 2010 bio-documentary of New York paparazzo Ron Galella, Smash His Camera, regards opinions about his actual ‘art,’ since the 87 minute film reveals that many of the more than 3 million images he’s collected in a fifty year career are now residing inside the walls of some of the more prestigious art galleries of the world. The debate is seen in roundtable amongst fellow photographers- some whom are photojournalists like Galella and others who fall more into the Diane Arbus art photographer side. While both sides make points, to the average viewer one has to come down emphatically on the side of Galella when Chuck Close sneers at Galella’s work. Why? Because while Galella’s rare ‘artistic photographs’ are merely the byproduct of repetition and numbers, the one thing he can never be accused of is pretension, for photojournalists, almost by definition, are judge by the content- not quality- of their material. By contrast, Close is one of the more notoriously pretentious visual artists of the last half century, whose ‘art’ consists of some rather banal photographs blown up to immense sizes, and paintings along similar lines. Close, who is not a photojournalist, also spends inordinate amounts of time ‘setting up’ his ‘art,’ whereas Galella’s photos come on the fly. Not that I’m proclaiming Galella a great artist, photographer, or even an artist, as such. My main point is that if the bottom of the artistic barrel, someone like a Chuck Close or Mark Rothko, sneers at your work, it’s practically a guarantee that your work has some merit. Both Close and Galella are hacks; it’s just that Galella is not a phony about it. Close still lives in his delusions.
That stated, Galella is an odd man to do a documentary on, since his personal life is rather tame- his greatest excesses seem to be an attachment to pet rabbits and creating a garden made of synthetic materials. Not that another documentary on a perverted criminal or a minor starlet is needed, just that Galella is not a man of any profundities nor depth; he’s a working man whose ‘work’ just happens to be annoying celebrities and documenting our culture’s obsession with it. The ‘why’ of all this is never explored, although the film does touch upon civil rights in reviewing some of the court cases that he was involved in, such as supposedly stalking Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and getting his jaw broken by Marlon Brando, who was out on the town with television talk show host Dick Cavett. Mostly, though, the film is just a chronicle of how Galella does his job- bribing janitors and maids for access to places the celebrities will be, or rushing through red lights to be where the rich and famous will be.
The film does trace the term paparazzo back to its source, Federico Fellini’s great 1959 film, La Dolce Vita, but little is made of the greater problems posed by such and the celebrity-drenched culture they fostered. Perhaps the most interesting digression in the film is a trip to Gallela’s basement, where he actually has a couple of employees who act as archivists. What is interesting, and a point that could have been commented upon is how the celebritization of the culture has led to people of different means, backgrounds and ethics being lumped together in such a catch-all term. As example, in similarly marked boxes are people as diverse as Michael Jackson, Grace Kelly, MC Hammer, John Gotti, Boris Becker, Tim Conway and a host of many other people. To someone reading this review in fifty or more years, it will be interesting to see which names, if any, are recognizable, and if the reason for their ‘celebrity’ will still matter. In the best moment of the film an attractive young brunette woman (herself perhaps one of those new ‘starlets’ that seems to grace the supermarket newsstand magazines every week) is wandering around one of the galleries displaying Galella’s photographs and can name only two or three of the celebrities that people my age- even if not a fan nor terribly familiar with their lives, instantly know, like Paul Newman, David Bowie, John Belushi, Steve McQueen, or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, whose name she butchers as ‘Tyler.’ Even worse is when she sees a photo of French film and sex goddess Brigitte Bardot and pronounces her last name ‘Bar-dot.’
One might think, given all that I have written of the man and film to this point, that he comes off as a piece of scum, a lowlife every bit as bad as his detractors (seen as talking heads in the film) insist he is. But he’s clearly not. After getting sued and slugged by Onassis and Brando, respectively, he showed great humor in later interactions with them, and seemed to genuinely love his job and the stars he covered. In interviews with news outlets, such as Tom Snyder’s old The Tomorrow Show, Galella shows a side of himself that, while not lovable, is certainly likeable. He comes off as an everyman, and his interactions with his own fans demonstrates this, and is a stark lesson on just how huge a sense of entitlement most celebrities have. Another point in his favor is that he is quite candid as to why he was so determined to photograph Jackie O., and that was because, at the time, he had no girlfriend. A touch sad, but the filmmaker, Gast, blows an opportunity to use that as a jumping off point to explore why the now 77 year old Galella was so obsessed with all other celebrities, and how this ‘ill’ got to be so engrained in the American psyche.
Thus, Smash His Camera resides firmly on the fun end of the meter in regards to documentaries, and not the deep end. That’s ok, though, because the subject matter it pursues is not deep, to begin with. Centuries later no one will likely care about this mass of images of people who achieved so little for humanity. If one bears all this in mind the hour and a half watching the film will seem mildly worth it. If not, not. Take what you will from this. That’s what Galella would do.