What comes to mind when you hear the word "paparazzi"? OK, how about something else aside from Lady Gaga's chart-topping hit? Actually, let's take a look at that song for a minute. Here are the lyrics, just in case they aren't seared into your brain:
I'm your biggest fan
I'll follow you until you love me
Baby there's no other superstar
You know that I'll be your-
Notice how Gaga speaks of yearning for the photographer's attention, shooting tons of pictures of her, and possibly starting some sort of relationship. Seems atypical, right? Watch an episode of TMZ, and you'll see superstars from Lindsay Lohan to Charlie Sheen avoiding the mobsters with their flashing lights. As annoying at paparazzi can be, hey, we all have to make a living.
And there's a new HBO documentary called Smash His Camera, which chronicles the work of perhaps the most notorious celebrity photographer: Ron Galella. Now, his name didn't ring a bell in my head, but his subjects surely did: Michael Jackson, Al Pacino, Jacqueline Onassis, David Bowie to name a few. And if you take a look at any of the final products created by this elusive paparazzo, a flurry of emotions came over the stars: surprise, anger, fear. Heck, Galella suffered a broken jaw and five lost teeth back in 1973, when Marlon Brando sucker punched him outside a restaurant in New York City's Chinatown!
Hank Stuever of The Washington Post reviewed the film when it premiered on HBO two months ago, so I'll leave it to him to explain the importance of Galella's legacy:
Galella is perhaps the most famous paparazzo of them all — including Paparazzo, the fictional character from Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," whence the word came. "Smash His Camera" director Leon Gast asks all the right questions in this film: Is Galella's life's work ethical journalism? Is it an illegal breach of privacy or just bad manners? Does Galella's vast archive — meticulously shelved and categorized negatives in the basement of his "Sopranos"-style New Jersey tract mansion — contain something of lasting cultural value?
While shots of Snooki from Jersey Shore or Beyonce appear to be a dime a dozen these days, Steuver notes that:
"Smash His Camera" makes clear how hard the work of a paparazzo can be, and how arrogant it is for celebrities to insist that fame reward them while also conforming to their wishes. It also suggests that while Galella's photographs are better than they first seemed, they are fading fast: In one great sequence, the camera follows a young woman through a gallery show of Galella's work, where she fails to recognize some of his most iconic subjects. "Tyler Burton?" she puzzles, reading a caption next to a shot of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Galella may not be a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. And he's been called a "creep" and a "stalker." But he's nabbed the best of the best, and in a world where TMZ more or less reigns supreme on celebrity sightings, Galella's tenacity and his work ethic should be praised in this film.