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February 13, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Smash His Camera

No one is happier than Ron Galella about Smash His Camera being about Ron Galella. The septuagenarian spends most of his interview time in this documentary strutting around his large New Jersey home showing off his fake gardens, his Greek columns and his decadent front yard. Ron Galella is more or less the man you can blame for the stalker-esque group of photographers known as paparazzi. He has two moments for which he is most proud; catching the ‘windblown Jackie’ shot of JFK’s widow while following her for photos; and being punched out by Marlon Brando, who took offence at Galella continuing to take the same shot of him over and over again, just walking down the street.

Director Leon Gast tries to be even-handed with this film, but it comes off clumsily. The opening montage, juxtaposing favourable and deeply negative comments about Ron’s work, tends to confuse the viewer, as we don’t know who the hell half of these people are, and why their opinions should matter. It only begins to meld together later on, when we spend more time with a select few of these people. Still, I would argue that a ‘restaurant owner’ (as her credit says) has no place in a documentary giving her opinion about the impact Galella’s work has made on modern-day celebrity photography. She might be someone who has an opinion worth knowing, but with a credit like that, how the bejeebus would I know?

Thanks to Galella’s delight at being the subject of a film, there are other elements to this documentary which make up for the awkward juxtapositioning and the hurried treatment of ethical and legal questions surrounding the nature of photographing ‘public figures’. It is, ironically, Galella’s massive collection of photographs that compel you to keep watching. The candid portraits of Paul Newman, Michael Jackson, Lady Di and of course Jackie Onassis are stored in an underground vault the size of a small factory, along with several thousand other well-known people. It’s a miracle he’s had enough time in one life to compile such an archive, one he can feed off for years to come as famous people die off and the demand for their photos is renewed. It’s a vicious Hollywood cycle of which Galella seems to be almost wholly unaware; like a kid in a lolly factory, he spends most of his time trying to decide who he’d rather photograph more and wandering from location to location like a lost boy, camera in hand.

Perhaps the most confusing thing about Smash His Camera is that it reads like a light-weight mockumentary, but it actually deals with compelling issues of privacy and the nature of celebrity. The approach doesn’t fit the material, and the stuck-in-an-elevator-with-Humphrey-Bear music doesn’t encourage anyone to take this film seriously, either. Smash His Camera presents its central figure as a bumbling, contradictory character, one who doesn’t seem to fully understand the implications of his actions.

What this film fails to do is get fresh and nuanced insight from the people around Galella; the audience deserves a better character profile of the man who so enraged Jackie Onassis that she ordered the secret service to smash his camera. There’s no denying being a member of the paparazzi pack makes you part of a mob hated by celebrities and the public alike, even when both ends of the spectrum benefit from the work that paparazzi do. But Smash His Camera fails to really answer the question every viewer must ask; what must it be like to be the pioneer of the paparazzi brigade, to be hated for instigating something that has forever changed the nature of privacy for those in the public eye?

We’ll have to settle for suppositions and the details we can pull from Galella’s optimistic outlook on life. Gast happily offers us Ron on a plate, but he doesn’t push any further. As any artist knows, the true art is in the details that other people can’t see until someone brings it out.


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