According to Leon Gast's nostalgic and occasionally fascinating documentary Smash His Camera, we can thank both infamous American photographer Ron Galella and Federico Fellini for initiating the pervasive cultural swoon of paparazzi in modern Western society. Early in this nonfiction portrait of Galella and his influence on celebrity culture, Gast cuts to a famous sequence from Fellini's La Dolce Vita where a wall of photographers surround Anita Ekberg's blond bombshell departing a jet liner. Yet the significance of that moment has altered completely in the 50 years since Fellini's film was released. What once seemed strangely sexy and inclusive is now a familiar and tiresome visual cue, a shift in perception regarding the definitions and representations of movie stardom.
Galella, a monster in the eyes of some journalists and stars and a visionary artist to others, has experienced this ideological transition as well over the course of his three-decade career as a photographer of celebrities. Smash His Camera examines this acute change, spending time with Galella as he remembers the golden days of photographing “real” stars like Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Katherine Hepburn, and contrasts it with today's saturated, irritating celebrity landscape. But most of the film is divided into the two defining chapters of Galella's controversial life: his prolonged court conflict with Jackie Onassis over the photographer's constant hounding of the socialite's everyday activities, and his physical altercation with an irate Marlon Brando, who broke Galella's jaw after a late-night party in New York City. These structuring events are fascinating to consider, but Gast interjects side stories that ultimately offset these two moments of power in this specific timeline. For Smash His Camera, Galella's description of these memories is priceless, so Gast's dissection of such events remains a cumbersome mystery throughout.
Stylistically, Smash His Camera treads on familiar ground, relying on a series of talking-head perspectives to contextualize Galella's importance or worthlessness. In a few curious moments, Gast collects interviewees of both opinions and sits them down for a dinner-table discussion, moving beyond the mere implications of perspective and into the realm of reasonable discourse. Yet despite all this supposed controversy, the real standout remains Galella's stunning collection of photographs, constant reminders of both his impressive breadth of work and the aura of true Hollywood star power. “He wanted to show humanity, but he also wanted to glamorize humanity,” says one reporter early in the film, and this perfectly encapsulates Galella's use of the photograph to deconstruct the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood life.
When Smash His Camera attempts to conduct a pertinent analysis of First Amendment rights in regard to Galella and the Onassis case, much of the film's charm turns into didactic war of words between his supporters and detractors. This self-seriousness goes against what Galella's free-spirited anarchy is all about, and sidetracks the film from its true subject matter. Galella's actions and experiences might allude to these types of political questions, but the filmmakers never handle the connection in a complex way. Thankfully, Gast gets back to Galella's current disillusionment in the film's striking final sequence, which shows the aged photographer ignoring the haphazard celebrity of a music video shoot to return home to his archive of classic pictures. Galella, once a viper of the paparazzi scene, now seems just as dissatisfied as the rest of us with the current crop of momentary “celebrities.” In this sense, the shifting wallpaper of legendary photographs that make up the end credits act as a wonderful album for a past moment in time when movie stars were more than just characters in their own real-life disaster films.
Visually, Smash His Camera doesn't distinguish itself from any other standard DV documentary. The occasionally blown-out exteriors often drown out the image, and when not drenched in light, the overall drab color schemes muddy the image. But this can be attributed to the filmmakers' disregard for visual creativity rather than the DVD transfer. On the other hand, some of the talking-head interviewees have a yellow tint to their skin tones, something Magnolia could have adjusted. But truthfully, the real star here is Ron Galella, a man whose conviction and dedication to his profession rightfully overwhelms the film. The sound design doesn't stand out either, beyond being adequately mixed and the dialogue nicely audible. When Galella plots (and he does so often), we clearly hear his brilliantly seedy plans to capture images of forbidden celebrities.
The commentary track between Galella, director Leon Gast, and producers Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger is at times dry but also deepens what's being seen on screen. The discussion about discovering new photos amid Galella's epic collection of pictures is especially interesting because it considers the fluid nature of his work. The deleted-scenes section has an array of various oddities, including a short segment on the importance of Elaine's restaurant in New York City to artists and stars of all mediums. Lastly, Magnolia has included a wide range of Galella's favorite pictures covering the Academy Awards, Hollywood functions, and swanky New York parties. My favorite is a timeless three-shot of Al Pacino, John Cazale, and a very young Meryl Streep at what appears to be the 1978 Oscar ceremony.
Smash His Camera might not be a revolutionary documentary, but it lovingly represents the sincere devotion famed paparazzo Ron Galella feels for his celebrity subjects and the epic resentment most of these stars feel toward him.