Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sued him. Marlon Brando busted his jaw. Andy Warhol declared him his favorite photographer. He is Ron Galella, America's first paparazzo, and director Leon Gast's documentary, the aptly titled Smash His Camera, brings his life story into sharp focus.
With his clumpy face, Bronx accent and street-wise charm, Galella comes on like a fringe character in some seedy 1970s crime caper — which, in reality, isn't far from how the notorious paparazzo lived during that decade and beyond. Galella spent the '70s in the shadows, lurking along the margins in hopes of snapping a candid or not-so-candid photo of any high-profile celebrity that he could sell to Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone the next day.
In our spray-tanned world of celebrity Twitter accounts and Dancing with the Stars, Galella would be only one among many, but in his day, he was a paparazzi pioneer.
To say Galella evokes strong reaction is putting it mildly — large portions of Smash His Camera are solely devoted to artists, photographer, and art collectors either defending or attacking his body of work and the tactics he used to amass it. Doesn't the man have a right to make a living? Don't these celebrities have a right to their privacy?
These debates may heat you up upon viewing, but they have little emotional longevity. The film seems at times to be a vanity documentary — a higher species of TV biography that more closely resembles a filmed portrait than a narrative. But like Galella's body of work, there is a casual brilliance to Smash His Camera, and the film's true success is in how it uses Galella to say something about American culture.
At one point in the film, a former museum director speaks of Galella with acidic contempt, asking what would we want alien archeologists to find in 10,000 years to explain our civilization: Galella's shots of celebrities, or the paintings of da Vinci and Monet? The film instead raises the question, do we want them to understand our civilization as it truly was, or as we wish it had been? Galella's lifelong search for the ultimate celebrity photo is an unfortunate chronicle of American culture.