The legacy of the paparazzo has never been a pretty one, but Leon Gast’s “Smash His Camera” boldly suggests its artistic merits. Granted, his subject — quintessential New York photographer Ron Galella — has been around a lot longer than today’s combative TMZ cameramen, but he’s got a few battle scars of his own and never misses the opportunity to reminisce about their origins. However, beyond Galella’s amusing tales of routinely stalking Jacqueline Onassis and getting slugged by Marlon Brando, his devotion to the process turns him into a de facto chronicler of cultural memory.
Gast piles up the evidence in Galella’s favor: Warhol’s favorite photographer, he positions himself as an aggressive advocate of the need to satisfy public curiosity. Once abhorred by high society, he has since been championed by many of its chieftains — including Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ultimately, though, the best argument in favor of Galella is the man himself. Now approaching eighty, he appears to have lost none of his convictions.
As the movie progresses, tracking Galella’s party-hopping career highs, Gast gradually shifts into a larger dialogue about the cult of personality. Gossip mavens Liz Smith and Bonnie Fuller eloquently dissect Galella’s mania, while others tackle the First Amendment issues that typically dominate any conversation about the moral questions surrounding his work. Gast threads these sequences together with a smooth, playful vibe matched only by Galella’s hilariously overenthusiastic demeanor. The movie never takes things to the next level by unearthing the deeper tragedies of the modern day Galellas storming the streets of Los Angels and New York, but TMZ gets a few cameos, if only because Galella still shows up wherever a bold face seems to appear. A phantom of twentieth-century show business, he has evolved into one of its foremost archivists.
Gast appears to have developed a close relationship with his subject that limited the extent to which he could dig beneath Galella’s staunch exterior. “Smash His Camera” exposes less about its subject than it first seems; instead, he emphasizes the mythology surrounding Galella’s work. The philosophical ruminations make for a compelling intellectual package. As a profile, it’s only surface deep, but only because the movie strives for a level of entertainment on par with the ebullient figure at its center.