Posted by: zackaldrich | February 27, 2010

Review: ‘Smash His Camera’

Ron Galella, American photographer beloved by some and hated by others, must have developed a sense of both the scorn and incredulity shared by Americans growing up in the late 20th century.

He’s been everywhere, creeping behind every bush, sometimes paying building owners to camp out for days alone in their facilities, in order to seize glimpses of celebrities at their most natural and vulnerable. He’s the ultimate paparazzo and, frankly, he’s totally nuts.

“Smash His Camera” is a film that capitalizes on Galella’s eccentricity and bumbling persona to make us think about the larger ideas of free speech and whom it belongs to.

The film, which takes it name from a comment made by Jackie Onassis to her bodyguard when Galella once cornered her in Central Park, does the remarkable in that it posits that a very unlikely character can be endearing.

There are plenty of opportunities for us to grasp the crude nature of his work.  Hounding celebrities, pestering their children and maids, and blinding them with flashes are irritating on their own terms.  The film gives us a few nuggets, too: a ferocious letter that compares Galella to a rat, the sad story of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis struggling with her right to privacy and her contempt for Galella.

The film portrays the relationship between Galella and Onassis as somewhat of a love story, and it’s almost believable.  We see Galella talk tenderly about his devastation when he heard about Jackie’s death, how he refrained from taking photographs at her funeral. We almost forget the monotonous legal battles fought between the former First Lady and the film’s subject.

More than anything, the film seems to understand that it’s not going to pay to be safe.  While the audience gets plenty of time to formulate opinions of Galella and the ethics of his “photojournalism,” the film makes a definitive endorsement of Galella’s significance as both a journalist and an artist.

It plays up his complete goofiness as a way to make him appealing.  Who isn’t rooting for him as he hounds Marlon Brando and the two duke it out?  Brando’s response to Galella’s persistence is pretty memorable, and it’s a comedic high point for the film.  Dick Cavett offers some hilarious commentary throughout the film and Galella own marriage is unabashedly funny as well.

While the larger issues of free speech aren’t ignored by New Jersey documentary film director Leon Gast, his film doesn’t purport to be a high-level anyalsis of journalism or the First Amendment.

It’s about developing a regard for this obtrusive profession, or at least understanding the motives of a man who is completely in love with his work. And good at it.

Regardless of how much viewers take away in terms of journalistic ethics or the role of democracy in shaping our privacy, it would be difficult to leave the theatre without at least a slightly altered perception of the paparazzi stereotype.

While the film may not have a grand purpose, it delivers with comedy and provides us with a most intriguing character. It’s a smash.

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