Most paparazzi are fly-by-night operators looking for a quick buck, but veteran pap Ron Gallela has spent the last 50 years amassing an archive of candid celebrity photos as impressive as any magazine or newspapers’. If a publication is looking for an unfamiliar picture of, say, Robert Redford in the ‘70s, they contact Gallela, who has millions of original images in his basement. (He’s got three boxes of Tony Danza alone.) Leon Gast’s documentary Smash His Camera—airing tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern, and repeating multiple times in the weeks to come—surveys the photographer’s career, from his groundbreaking court fights with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to his hot pursuit of Liz Taylor and Dick Burton in Rome, his jaw-busting altercation with Marlon Brando in the ‘70s, and his current life as an adorable old pro that celebs don’t mind posing for. The movie also deals with the legal, ethical and aesthetic issues of Gallela’s business: whether he has a right to take pictures of anyone at anytime, and whether his work has any intrinsic value beyond its subject matter.
Gast is a skilled documentarian (an Academy Award winner for his When We Were Kings, in fact), and aside from some overly jaunty, ever-present soundtrack music, Smash His Camera assembles Gallela’s anecdotes in ways that are entertaining to watch and well-supported visually. Gast follows Gallela around as he attends events now, still trying to sneak in back entrances and get shots that all the photogs down on the press line won’t. But Gallela’s modern adventures pale next to his heyday, when he’d leap out of the bushes to catch Jackie O in an unguarded moment, or pay off informants so that he’d know where certain celebrities would be dining or clubbing. Gallela and his fans paint these youthful hijinks as good, clean fun in the pursuit of art; but Gast also gives plenty of screen time to people who consider Gallela’s tactics disgraceful at best, criminal at worst.
Smash His Camera makes the transition from good to near-great towards the end, with a sequence that shows a young woman walking through a gallery of Gallela’s work, unable to identify his subjects. The Gallela collection is impressive in its breadth; if someone’s looking for a Gallela photo of Angelina Jolie, for example, they’ll find shots ranging from her as a little girl to her on the red carpet last week. But what does that matter if in a generation from now no one cares about Angelina Jolie anymore? When that happens, will Gallela’s collection still be seen as an invaluable store of late 20th century art, or the work of a celeb-obsessed hoarder?
Gast certainly allows for the possibility that Gallela’s little more than a wacko who’s turned his worst traits into a lucrative career. It’s hard to deny the power of his images, which capture some of the most famous faces of our times, unposed. But would they be as powerful if Gallela were photographing his landlady instead of John Travolta? Smash His Camera gives all the points of view about Gallela a fair airing, such that whether viewers care about the privacy rights of rich, pretty people or not, they should be engaged enough by this documentary to have an opinion about this charming old trespasser.