We review two documentaries from this year's Sundance Film Festival about the paparazzi
In this corner... Leon Gast. He's the director of "When We Were Kings," a movie I've got a ton of love for, and he's been cutting concert films and documentaries for decades. He's at Sundance this week with "Smash His Camera," a documentary about legendary paparazzi Ron Galella.
And in this corner... Adrian Grenier. Yes, the star of "Entourage." Vinnie Chase. That's HBO's big star on HBO's big show about celebrity culture. It's a slick and sometimes funny show, but it offers no real insight into fame. It's selling a fantasy of how business works, how people behave. It's exaggeration, cheerfully shallow stuff, so maybe that makes me skeptical of Grenier as a filmmaker. He's the star on TV, but here he's the director of a film about Austin Visschedyk, a kid he met taking his picture, already a working member of LA's venal paparazzi scene before the age of 15.
Both films, not so surprisingly, feature a scene where a clip from "La Dolce Vita" is shown while it's explaiend that the character Paparazzo (Italian for "mosquito) was the origin of that word being used to describe a specific kind of ultra-aggressive celebrity photographer. It's ground zero for the term. If you see them both, you can't help but wince. It's wild how close the two scenes are.
Besides that, though, the films are very different.
And if you'd told me which filmmaker I would be more impressed by after seeing both films, I would have scoffed. With scornful laughter. Right. In. Your. Face.
Leon Gast's film is entertaining. No doubt. As an experience, I enjoyed watching it. I can sum it up quickly. Basically, it's Ron Galella saying, "Hi, there, I'm a scumbag. I took some nice photos. Here they are." And as that, it's entertaining. He's got stories about all the people he shot, he's got some great photos to punctuate those stories, and he's got a nice house and a nice wife. And beyond that, this film that Gast has put together tells me nothing about celebrity culture or the influence of Galella and his various court appearances on the world that we live in now. It's almost entirely surface, and it seems to me to be a strangely missed opportunity. After all, Galella is one of the guys who helped set the legal precedents that stalkerazzi still use today to legally harass people. I've seen this shit up close, and I think the industry is a grotesque one. I don't think Galella's stories are cute... I think they're scary. I think the way he harassed Jackie Kennedy was borderline obscene, and his imagined relationship with her is creepy as presented in the film, but I don't think Galella thinks it's creepy. For the most part today, Galella has transformed from genuine threat to beloved fixture, a face who still shows up at press events even though he doesn't really make his money competing for the big shots these days. His archives of millions of photos stretching back to the '60s are interesting, and I'll bet he's got a lot of really fascinating, iconic images in there that we've never seen. Just inevitable with the way this guy shot pictures.
But... so what? I'd like to know if Galella is aware of how vile much of that business has become these days, both in search of the picture and then once it's been turned into an assett, and the way money is spent in the business. That stuff is what makes Galella's story interesting or relevant now, and the way Gast treats him with kid gloves on, I think it's actually weak. You've got this guy on the record, I want to know how he justifies everything he did, and how he feels about the way it's evolved. I want a sense of the movie setting him in context even if he can't be clear and articulate about it himself.
"Teenage Paparazzo," on the other hand, is a truly insightful film about where we are now, how we got there, and where we're headed. And while it's probably not nice or fair that I'm so surprised about Grenier as a director, it's honest. He's made one other documentary, a short, and I think it's an earnest if unremarkable movie that really only got attention because of who made it, not because it was a particularly good documentary short. The difference here is that this time out, he's made a movie of real substance and it's only because of who he is that the film is even possible. That's an important distinction. He's exploring something here that is part of the fabric of his public identity, and what could have been indulgent or whiny or just plain ill-considered is actually a resonant, knowing piece of work that makes strong points about celebrity culture, a look from the inside out, and because of the nature of "Entourage," Grenier's able to get lots of access and reactions that no one else would.
And, to be fair, no one else had the same in with Austin that he did. Adrian was the first celebrity that Austin ever photographed. He was 13 at the time. By the time Adrian catches up with the kid and starts filming him for this project, he's a 14 year old who has been accepted into the LA paparazzi scene, and he's started to make a name for himself. By stepping back into the story, though, Adrian affects the story, and suddenly it's not a film about a kid taking photos of famous people... ti's a film about a kid who becomes a famous person because he's a kid who takes photos of famous people, and because a famous person is making a film about him, which is practically the same thing as handing him a certain dosage of fame. How this kid handles it, how the people around him handle it, and how his mother handles him... it's all absorbing, and in the process, it reveals the process at work instead of talking about it, showing us what the sudden onset of any degree of fame is like, and how much of a cancer it can be in general.
I'm also impressed at just how fair Grenier is to the paparazzi in general. By hanging out with Austin, he's eventually able to hang around with the rest of the paparazzi, and he comes to understand what it is that keeps them working the job, and he illustrates just how much money is out there for an industrious photographer. Grenier's film nails the crazy symbiosis that makes it hard for celebrities to complain about how they're photographed, but he also shows the human side of things and just what sort of toll it takes on anyone who's being stalked.
In the end, it's the Grenier film that seems to be about something larger than just "photos of celebrities are fun to look at," and he really works hard at every inch of the way to keep asking new questions. I think he lucked into the story he eventually tells, but that's the sign of a good documentairan. He shot the right footage, he asked the right questions, and in th eend, he got the right movie.
Way to go, Vinnie Chase. You have my parasocial congratulations.
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