Magnolia Pictures // 2010 // 90 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // November 17th, 2010
"I'm Ron Galella. Paparazzo, superstar."
Ron Galella may have been the worst thing to happen to celebrities; he may have been the best thing to happen to celebrities. Documentarian Leon Gast's (When We Were Kings) film is an entertaining portrait of the legendary New York paparazzo. If Galella's name isn't instantly recognizable, that's okay because Smash His Camera is also an illuminating look back to an era that some people will regard as ancient history.
Galella studied photojournalism in California and served in the United States Air Force as a photographer, but he made his reputation in the 1970s as the most colorful and obsessive among the pack of paparazzi. The film introduces Galella in the present as a friendly New Jersey senior. He's in good spirits as he drives to a movie premier with the intention of getting some shots of Robert Redford. Galella seems pretty innocuous aside from the obvious joy he displays when he captures a few frames of celebrities. In his heyday, those on the business end of his lens probably saw Galella in a very different light.
Through interviews with his defenders, his detractors, news footage and retold anecdotes, we meet the man who amassed a collection of millions of photos of famous people without their permission. He hid in bushes, bribed doormen, staked out residences for days and pursued his targets on foot or by vehicle. Famously, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis successfully sued Galella though his defense cited his right to freedom of speech. Marlon Brando also knocked out his teeth after being ambushed on his way to a restaurant. Neither a restraining order nor a wired jaw kept Galella down. You have to admire his tenacity even if you despise his conduct.
Galella made his fortune preying on the famous but he says he wasn't in it for the money. Credit his wife Betty, a former magazine editor, with the business savvy to treat Ron's pictures as gallery caliber art. Galella documented the era in some of the best spontaneous people pictures ever. He refers to his personal favorite "take" -- Kennedy Onassis with wind-swept hair crossing a street -- as his "Mona Lisa" and it seems appropriate.
At an exhibition of Galella's portraits, a young woman tries to put names to the faces she sees. Pictured among the framed prints are John Belushi, Steve McQueen, Robert Kennedy and others. The young woman does not know why these people are (or were) famous. Celebrity seems to have an expiry date. Galella's work takes on the significance of a time capsule through his concentrated record of a certain class of society. Further artifacts of a bygone era are Galella's archive of millions of photos stored under his mansion. These are physical film negatives and prints made in a chemical darkroom.
The cult of celebrity won't die but it evolves, as evidenced in the present by celebrity tweeters and strategically leaked sex videos. Galella and the subjects of his camera existed in a time that is no more. Smash His Camera is a fascinating look back to a past age of celebrity mania and paparazzi frenzy. It's also a thorough portrait of a man who took some of the most iconic photographs of his time but often with great annoyance to his subjects. Best of all, the briskly paced documentary is stuffed with examples of Galella's finest work.
The DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment does a good job with the documentary film. The footage is a mix of sources including still photos, degraded video of newscasts and recent interviews. The picture quality varies according to the condition of the different footage but overall it's fine. Nothing is distractingly bad and the newly shot footage is clean, sharp and lit well. Either audio option, 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo, does the job without any problem. The surround sound mix isn't necessary but I appreciated the extra range at the low end.
Ron Galella, director Leon Gast and producers Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger team up for a commentary track. There are 17 minutes of deleted scenes, some of which expand the details of the most notable Galella stories. The photo gallery features Galella's favorite images.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery