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He thought he knew everything about celebrity. Until he met one.
The best documentaries are not necessarily the stories that filmmakers set out to tell. In Teenage Paparazzo, first-time filmmaker Adrian Grenier begins his project as a simple human interest about pre-teen paparazzi on the street of Los Angeles, but soon finds the project evolving into a complex exploration of the relationship between celebrity and society.
Facts of the Case
One night in Los Angeles, Entourage star Adrian Grenier has his photograph taken by a paparazzo. This happens an awful lot to Adrian. He's a famous person these days. His show is a huge hit on HBO. To his surprise, the paparazzo in question is a fourteen year-old boy named Austin Visschedyk. Astonished, Grenier strikes up a relationship with the kid.
What would make a young kid grab a camera and lurk in garbage cans in front of celebrity hangouts at 3AM—and on a school night, no less? Grenier decides to turn the cameras on Austin and find out. He starts following Austin around, filming his comings and goings, his numerous run-ins with celebrities, his paparazzo buddies, in an effort not only to understand this fascinating teenager, but to also gain insight into the celebrity paparazzo culture itself.
Art imitates life, or so they say. If so, Adrian Grenier just might be living in a Charlie Kaufman screenplay. The handsome star of HBO's hit series Entourage, his character Vincent is a famous celebrity overwhelmed by paparazzi and fan adoration. In real life, Adrian is overwhelmed by paparazzi and fan adoration. The difference between his professional life and his personal life is blurred beyond recognition. He finds the paparazzi in particular to be annoying. They hound and interfere, swarm around him and his celebrity friends at all hours, eradicating any chance of maintaining a private life outside of the spotlight. And then, enter Austin Visschedyk; a precocious and strong-willed child with a ten thousand dollar camera in hand, snapping pictures with the rapid-fire fury of a machine gun. Suddenly, Adrian wants to understand paparazzi. What makes a fourteen year-old kid sign up for this?
Through Austin, Adrian gets to know the paparazzo subculture: how they behave, why they do what they do, their ethics or lack thereof. He even gets to be one, in disguise, viewing the celebrity world from the other side of the camera lens. In the mother of all ironies, it turns out that paparazzi value their privacy and do not appreciate having their picture taken. By bringing a camera crew into the midst of a culture, one who understands their relationship with cameras through one direction only, Grenier upsets the balance between the observers and the observed.
Then something unexpected happens. Austin, the young pre-teen paparazzo himself becomes an object of attention, simply through association to the film in progress. People start to recognize him—he's the kid the Entourage guy is making a movie about. He signs autographs and has his picture taken. Celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, once the objects of his attention as a paparazzo, start sending him text messages; an acknowledgement of him as an equal, for he is one of them now. In the ultimate turn of events, he even starts blowing off Grenier and his documentary with all the calloused disregard of an egotistical star.
Grenier observes his experiment gone awry with a growing sense of alarm and trepidation. Through the simple act of filming this boy, he has disrupted the natural order of things, upset the delicate balance, created Frankenstein's monster. Celebrities are celebrities, and paparazzi are the elected surrogates that represent our collective need to connect with the rich and famous. The Walls of Jericho separate these two worlds. Now, against all odds, Adrian has become a paparazzo of sorts, stalking a surly celebrity who is trying to avoid his camera. And the paparazzo is the star. Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!
Teenage Paparazzo is a tremendous documentary, one of the strongest I have seen this year. It is so sincere, so honest and so forthright about its subject matter; full of questions, not declarations. Grenier avoids the classic pitfall of the inexperienced documentary filmmaker and allows the film to take its natural course, wherever it may lead, rather than trying to push an agenda. There is no rejection or approval of paparazzi culture, no judgments passed. The end result is fluid and dynamic in tone, a frank and open dialog between celebrity and society—a relationship complex and riddled with psychological and sociological pitfalls.
Do paparazzi fill a sociological need by breaching the divide between the two worlds, bringing us closer to our idols? Celebrities hate them, but a celebrity by definition is someone who puts themselves deliberately in the public eye. People buy tabloid magazines to see celebrities doing normal things—shopping, walking their dog, picking their nose—and revel knowing their idols are people too. Meeting a celebrity during a chance encounter on the street turns the most stalwart and unassuming of person into a quivering, mouth-breathing fan, turned giddy at the prospect of shaking hands with a famous person. So which came first, the chicken or the paparazzo? Who made who?
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, Teenage Paparazzo looks solid on DVD, but not great. Shot mostly on handheld cameras on the streets of Los Angeles, the film has a gritty texture that reflects the small, mobile digital cameras used to assemble the film. Colors are solid, white levels are average. Black levels tend to get eaten up by the digital grain. Audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1, which is overkill; the film is primarily dialog-driven, narrated by Adrian Grenier. Bass response is average and dialog is clear.
In terms of extras, we get a smattering of deleted scenes with a handy "play all" button; nothing worth writing home about.
Teenage Paparazzo is a film about the transformative power of the camera. The very act of observing is inherently exploitative; whatever is placed in front of a lens is irrevocably changed, and not always for the better. Grenier begins the project as a human interest piece about a teenage shutterbug, but the end result is a fascinating metaphorical and intertextual dissection of our voyeuristic culture.
Or, if you skipped down here to the end, just to get the verdict? This is one of the finest documentaries of 2010. Go get it.
A superb film.
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