By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; C03
"Smash His Camera," an HBO documentary airing Monday night, makes a compelling case for the souls of the lowly paparazzi -- those photographers who by trick, luck and hustle are always nabbing candid and sometimes sordid shots of the famous, which they traffic to gossip-hungry media.
The paparazzo is a vital component of the celebrity-industrial complex; he fulfills an ancient contract between stars and nobodies, which stipulates that the stars cannot be worshiped if we never glimpse them in an unguarded state. He is an unsavory if nevertheless heroic reminder of the complex gift that is the First Amendment. And don't look now, but he may also be an artist.
Bosh, some say. But that is the wonder of the heartbreakingly enjoyable "Smash His Camera," which is only partly a portrait of the tenacious, 79-year-old career freelance photographer named Ron Galella. The rest is a rumination on fame.
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?
There are, of course, plenty of opinions, from the dripping disdain of a Metropolitan Museum of Art chief to the enthusiastic admiration of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who says Galella does for the living what the 20th-century crime photographer Weegee did for the dead.
Galella's work spans from the 1960s to the present day, but really this is a movie that revels in the glorious vitality of the 1970s celebresphere, the final days of black-and-white film and chest hair and too many Harvey Wallbangers. Just enough time has gone by that Galella's shots from this era have acquired an eerie quaintness to them, now that anybody with a phone is a potential paparazzo. Nowhere is this clearer than a tender sequence in which the camera accompanies Galella into his darkroom, to watch him mix chemicals and produce a print of what he calls "my Mona Lisa."
That would be Galella's most famous shot, of a windblown Jacqueline Onassis turning her head and smiling faintly as she dashed for a taxicab in 1971.
His epic effort to photograph Jackie in public over the years became the stuff of free-speech lore: As she returned from a Central Park bicycling trip with her children, an exasperated Jackie implored her Secret Service agents to "smash his camera," which they darn near did. The fracas led to Galella suing Jackie (for preventing him from making a living) and her countersuing him (for all the obvious reasons, not the least of which would be her shattered sense of security; to her, a photographic shot was too close to a gunshot). When the case came to trial, Jackie had the gall, in testimony, to say that she didn't perceive herself to be a public figure.
At one point in the movie, an encounter between Galella and Robert Kennedy Jr. plays like a polite but frosty reunion: "How old are you now?" an incredulous Kennedy asks him, while Galella happily trails along, shooting away.
"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.
All this belated acclaim is not to say that Galella is a patron saint of journalism, and he's a bit lost in the present-day TMZ paparazzi glut he helped create. Respect comes his way in the tiniest portions, which he gobbles up instantly, blithely. He has cannily focused his attention on licensing his archives and honing his natural-born gifts of shameless self-promotion. A ride-along to photograph Robert Redford at a charity event turns into a protracted effort on Galella's part to get a signed copy of his 2008 coffee-table book, "No Pictures," into Redford's hands.
Humility is a useless trait in Galella's world, as it would get in the way of his craft. But the rat you expect to meet in "Smash His Camera" never materializes. Given the years, Galella's persistence and dedication lend him . . . well, dignity.
Smash His Camera: (90 minutes) airs at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.