In Ron Galella the makers of Smash His Camera (namely director Leon Gast) have found a wonderful subject for a documentary but one that is perhaps too engaging, a character too seductive to not just fall in love with. Galella is a paparazzi photographer but unlike the stereotypical image that this profession has, Galella is considered by some to be an artist and even those who find this a crazy idea and decrie his chosen career still appear to hold some affection for him.

Coming to prominence in the sixties, mostly due to his ‘stalking’ of the recently widowed/remarried Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Galella describes himself as a paparazzi superstar and is referred to at one point as the pope of paparazzi. His unrelenting approach and high profile run-ins with Jackie Kennedy Onassis in court and Marlon Brando on the street helped in making him and the paparazzi in general even more (in)famous.

The film takes its title from a phrase uttered by Jackie Kennedy Onassis to the agents who guarded her children after Galella jumped out of a bush and snapped the family cycling in the park. This and many other encounters led to a very high profile court case in which Galella and Onassis sued eachother. To boil the film down to a simple narrative one could describe Onassis as the love interest to the male lead, Galella. Although there is never any suggestion that Galella has romantic sights set on Onassis (he is happily married), he is clearly in love with his subject, she is his muse. There is the suggestion throughout that perhaps Onassis, despite the court cases and the angry reactions, actually liked Galella taking her photograph and there is one amusing moment where Gast shows us a wealth of photos of Onassis staring directly into Galella’s lens with a beaming smile. Galella even made it clear in the Q&A after the film that he still believes that Onassis loved having her photo taken.

This inference and the exploration of the role of paparazzi like Galella in raising stars’ profiles is touched on but not developed too far. This is a film, even to fault, about one man, Ron Galella.

Galella is something of a dying breed though and one of the most notable things about watching the film is the realisation of just how iconic his photos are. There is a moment towards the end where Gast is clearly lamenting the ignorance of the ‘youth of today’ who can’t recognise even the most famous of celebrities from only a couple of decades ago and are more interested in ‘the moment’ and the current crop of non-celebrities. A slightly obvious and obnoxiously over-simplified point but one that does provide a number of laughs. What is so fascinating though is how these paparazzi photos are the most memorable and even often the most beautiful pictures we have of actors, musicians, politicians and even gangsters. Many of Galella’s photos are used today as stock photos of these celebrities as they are so representative of the person in question, revealing perhaps some truth that a staged photo will never capture. As the internet increases the access to information the line between the official and the unofficial often becomes blurred and if one does a quick image search for Jackie Onassis (not too scientific I know) it is Galella’s photos that rank the highest and are probably taken by many to be official portraits.

The flip side to this legacy is of course the much harder to defend paparazzi photography that seems intent on catching celebrities at their worst or invading their privacy in an attempt to catch them doing something they don’t want to be seen. Although Galella encroached on people’s privacy it becomes clear, at least in Smash His Camera, that he beleives his job is not to make celebrities look bad. In the post film Q&A Galella commented that he was “after the beauty of the face… The genuine quality of every person.”

The questioning of the artistic merit of his photos and the legality of his methods is also raised but despite a number of talking heads from experts discussing these issues the film comes to no lofty conclusions. Smash His Camera is ultimately a very lightweight affair and something of a hagiography but it is very enjoyable and even the themes that it simplistically touches on still linger in one’s mind long after the credits roll. Gast claims to have intended the film to be “down the middle, 50/50” and if this was truly his intention he has failed in many ways but what remains is still a fascinating look at paparazzi photography and a wonderful document of the life of the  highly engaging Ron Galella.