White at Sundance: I'm a Celebrity; Shoot Me!

By Tom White

The big-screen screen-saver that unspools prior to the trailer that precedes each film at Sundance includes a stream of messages to complement the header for its catalogue: "This is your guide to Cinematic Rebellion"..."This is the recharged fight against the establishment of the unexpected"..."This is the rebirth of the battle for brave new ideas"..."This is the renewed rebellion."..

Over the years, the Sundance Film Festival has taken some knocks for its celebro-swag atmosphere that pervaded in Park City, and now, in the post-Gilmore era, the Sundance cognoscenti has proclaimed its reclamation of its raw, revolutionary roots. Celebrities be damned!

That is, except as subject matter for a pair of canny docs about the complicated infrastructure that stokes the star-making machinery--the agents and publicists, the publications, the paparazzi and the celebrities themselves.  Teenage Paparazzo is a debut doc from actor Adrian Grenier, who plays an actor on the HBO hit Entourage. Austin Visschedyk, the Teenage Paparazzo in question, piques Grenier's interest enough to make him the subject and star of  his documentary--and the touchstone for Grenier's further exploration into the paparazzo culture and its place in the celebrity universe. Grenier himself takes a turn as a "pap," then unwittingly helps make Austin a celebrity. Of course, Grenier remains a celeb himself, spotted with Paris Hilton in a calculated experiment to see where the media takes what the "paps" feed them, and pointed out at Fenway Park, talking to a decidedly unglamorous MIT professor about celebrity culture. In the end, Austin, now 16, is jaded, and possibly ready to pursue the photojournalism or photography paths that Grenier encourages. Austin's "pap" cohorts, well past 13, but still amoral, obnoxious, incorrigible brats well into their 40s and 50s, carry on their sordid ways, claiming to be making a living, while wreaking havoc on people's lives.


Adrian Grenier (left)and Paris Hilton stage a moment for the paparazzi, including Austin Visschedyk (center).



Austin and his crew owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ron Galella, the subject of Leon Gast's Smash His Camera. Galella earned his notoriety for his manic pursuit of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in the 1970s, which triggered a fierce debate about First Amendment rights to privacy, and his pestering of Marlon Brando, which earned him a broken jaw from the mercurial actor. Galella, now 78, and still devoted to his work, is blithely indifferent to the morality of what he does and the tawdriness of his legacy, yet there's something endearing about him as he takes us on a tour of his colossal collection of some three million photographs. Whether his work can be considered art is the subject of fierce debate in the film, as artist Chuck Close, photographer Neil Leiffer, the late Met Museum director Thomas Hoving, among others, all weigh in. One individual in the film posits, If an archaeologist were to happen upon a time capsule, whose photos would be more important as an apotheosis of American culture, Galella's or Walker Evans'? I would say that they're sides of the same coin: The film persuaded me of Galella's prowess as a chronicler of celebrity and celebrity-making, capturing the rich and famous at their most unadorned and unstaged--and resolutely human--while Evans earned his place on the photography pantheon with his potent renderings of the grim reality of life in the Great Depression. But Galella reminded me of WeeGee, whose métier was murder and accident victims. Armed with a police scanner, he'd arrive on the scene before the cops came. Questionable morality, for sure, but his work would later grace the walls of the International Center for Photography.



Ron Galella (right) stalks his prey, Jackie Kennedy Onassis. From Leon Gast's Smash His Camera. Courtesy of Gteb The Shot Productions