September 16, 2010

That's Celebritainment!: Paparazzi Are the Stars in Two New Docs

Adrian Grenier (right) and Austin Visschedyk, subject of Grenier's <em>Teenage Paparazzo</em>. Courtesy of HBO

I remember growing up in Malibu--well, I don't remember all of those years; it was the '60s. We'd see stars at the supermarket, gas station, post office, out walking on the beach or at a community meeting discussing whether or not we should have sewers. No one was bugging them. No one chased them. They were our neighbors. 

When it was Academy Awards time, these neighbors would be picked up in a limo and whisked away to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where they'd walk the red carpet and smile to the cameras. The next day, they were home weeding the garden.

This was an era before the Internet, TMZ and the 24-hour news cycle. Even though the studio system had collapsed, the tabloids hadn't completely taken over the supermarket aisles, and the culture wasn't completely obsessed with the comings and goings of anyone with the vaguest claim to being a celebrity.

Sure, there were faux stars and minor celebrities. The Monkees come to mind, as well as all the occupants sitting in the guest boxes on Hollywood Squares--the original B-, C- and D-list. There were flash-in-the-pan, one-hit wonders who came and went, and publicists who tried to get their clients some ink (remember ink?) or pictures in the papers. Or keep their pictures out of the paper--something that was much easier to do then. Speaking from my own experience, the LA County Sheriffs assigned to Malibu were known to drive inebriated locals home instead of locking them up. Most wouldn't have dreamed of giving some newshound a picture or a story. Even if they did, the editors could be dissuaded from running some stories.

Triggering these thought bubbles was the opportunity to view two recent documentaries on the paparazzi phenomenon. One, Teenage Paparazzo, a film about a prodigy of sorts, a 14-year-old "pap," is directed by Adrian Grenier, who plays Vince in the HBO series Entourage. Teenage Paparazzo gives Grenier an opportunity to see the world from the point of view of those who prey on him as a celebrity.

The other documentary, Smash His Camera by Leon Gast (known for When We Were Kings, the Oscar-winning documentary about the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman) traces the career of one of the earliest practitioners of the black arts of the paparazzi, Ron Galella.

Watching these films in the wake of Andrew Breitbart's video assault on Shirley Sherrod, the Chelsea Clinton wedding clamor and the nail-biting drama of Lindsey Lohan's time in the slammer, I wondered if we should see Teenage Paparazzo and Smash His Camera in a wider context--the tabloidization of the media. Not an original thought, but it made me feel I was doing a public service watching these two highly enjoyable, yet provocative, films.

Galella was at the forefront of this media transformation, and now it's something that even a kid can do. But when Galella first got out of the military service and turned his sights on New York's glitterati in the early '60s, he had the field to himself. This hard-working everyman from New Jersey was probably a difficult child who rebelled against coloring in the lines; as an adult, he decided not to stay behind the rope lines at events. He wanted to capture those candid, unscripted moments that to him were more real. Like a good beat reporter, he developed sources among limo drivers, doormen and nannies who tipped him off about the whereabouts of such stars as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Marlon Brando. Galella had a system that would involve faking invites and credentials and knowing all the entry points in every New York hotel--especially the kitchen, which he recommends. No one ever seemed to stop him. His hours-long stakeouts produced millions of black-and-white photos, some iconic, that newspapers and magazines snapped up. This allowed him to build a home in New Jersey decorated in a style that Tony Soprano would love.

Gast was drawn to Galella's attitude. "He had a drive. He's a workaholic--as Muhammad Ali was." Galella's dogged persistence appears harmless in the film, but he got under people's skin. Tracking Brando, who was out for a nighttime walk with talk show host Dick Cavett, caused the mumbling actor to lose it. As Galella got in his face, Brando cold-cocked him, breaking his jaw and knocking out five teeth. Galella decided to wear a football helmet the next time he saw the actor.

Brando broke Galella's jaw, but it was Jackie O who broke his heart. His fixation with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis between 1967 and 1982 resulted in a harassment suit and a countersuit, spurring debate about the limits of a free press that still stirs heated emotions. Galella's obsession also produced a number of memorable images, including his most famous shot of Jackie walking across the street. Mid-stride she turns her head and smiles as the wind tousles her hair. Galella got her to turn towards him by having the cab driver honk his horn. It was magic.

"Jackie is his Mona Lisa," says Gast. "What you have here is a love story. It's ‘Beauty and the Beast.'" It didn't work out for Galella, but the vitriol of Richard Burton, who "threatened to kill him," or Elaine Kaufman, owner of the once trendy restaurant Elaine's, "who threw a garbage can at him" (which made a good photo), seems misplaced. "Ron said you have to be thick-skinned," Gast notes.

Flash-forward from tramping the sidewalks of New York with the 77-year-old Galella to keeping up with 14-year-old Austin Visschedyk as he skateboards around Hollywood bagging shots of Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Entourage star Grenier saw Austin in the "Pap pack" and was struck not only by his tenacity but its subtext: "He was being taught at such an early age some of the base and animal things practiced by the tabloid media." This came at a time when Grenier was looking at his "own role in the media and taking a hard look at myself and what I wanted to put out in my work," he says.

Focusing on the world of "celebritainment," as practiced by the hungry hordes who make a living capturing the comings and goings of Hollywood's latest heartthrobs, seemed like a good way for Grenier to explore the media's "world of mirrors." He'd been thinking about these questions while reading anthropologist Thomas De Zengotita's book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It.

Zengotita looks at the impact of media saturation and how it can be navigated and understood. "He talks about our modern mediated experience like it's the Blob (from the 1958 sci-fi horror film)," Grenier notes. "You can't kill it, and anything you do just makes it bigger." In Grenier's film, we see the Pap pack, or Blob, swarm around a beach house as he and Paris Hilton wait inside, curtains closed. Like the frightened citizens in fictional Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, who were menaced in the film, Grenier and Hilton can't make it go away, so they go out to confront the inevitable. 

Neither Gast nor Grenier have seen the other's film--something they plan to do when they get together in New York--but Teenage Paparazzo premieres September 27 on HBO. Smash His Camera, which aired on HBO and in theaters through Magnolia Pictures this past summer, comes out on DVD this fall, and will include bonus material of Galella talking about his experiences.

Asked if we'll see another movie about paparazzi in the future, Grenier observes, "Now that there is an explosion of celebrity, and everybody has a camera, the money's gone, but it's evolving."

 

Michael Rose is a writer, producer and director of nonfiction programs who also writes for The Huffington Post and other publications.