The Paparazzi: opportunistic vultures or misunderstood artistic geniuses? These days you’d be hard pressed to find anyone unwilling to defend the former, but ‘Smash His Camera,’ a new HBO documentary about legendary paparazzo Ron Galella seeks to explore the possibility of both.
Galella, 79, has spent a lifetime courting controversy, often going to extreme measures to snap the perfect celebrity shot. He was punched in the face by Marlon Brando. His favorite subject, Jackie O., sued him – and won. Cutting a camera-sized peephole in the hedges out front of Katharine Hepburn’s house in a 1981 video, Galella proudly boasts to the crew following him: “Paparazzi needs a viewpoint. Sometimes you have to create it.”
Much of the documentary is centered around the debate among industry heavyweights – Graydon Carter; Bonnie Fuller; Liz Smith – whether Galella’s work is truly art, or simply exploitation. As expected, both sides make compelling arguments.”Clearly you’re interested in the history of photography,” artist Chuck Close jokes to director Leon Gast. “So why are you making a piece on Ron Galella?”
Ultimately, the success of the documentary comes not in arriving at a definitive conclusion, nor in exposing the inventive secrets to Galella’s celebrity “conquests” – although there are more than a few titillating tales involving Elizabeth Taylor and Studio 54′s heyday – but in exposing Galella’s humanity. When most of us associate present-day paparazzi photographers as nameless, faceless schlubs snapping shots of Lindsay Lohan leaving a club at 4 a.m., Galella comes off today as surprisingly sympathetic; he walks with a limp; he and his wife share a love of bunnies. And although he is no humble saint – he refers to himself as a “paparazzo superstar” – there is no denying the lasting impact of the moments captured by his lens (see above, and below).
‘Smash His Camera,’ which won the directing prize at Sundance, premieres Monday, June 7, at 9/8c on HBO.