If you don't know the name Ron Galella, you probably know some of his photographs. He took that shot of his favorite subject, Jackie Onassis, crossing a New York City street in 1971 with hair blowing everywhere, a shot he would dub "Windblown Jackie." Through dedication, craftiness, and a willful obliviousness to criticism, Galella became the most prolific, successful, and infamous paparazzo in America. He is still working today, albeit at a slower pace, as Leon Gast documents here. Gast, maker of exciting Rumble in the Jungle doc When We Were Kings, follows the now-79-year-old as he lumbers about the Waldorf in search of Robert Redford, and feebly crosses a barrier at the Changeling premiere before immediately demurring after a security guard shoos him back. When another dawdling pursuit leads him to RFK Jr., the latter greets him with a smile that conceals contempt for the merciless photographic stalker of his late aunt. "You're too old to hide in bushes now, Ron," he tells him.
Of all of Galella's tasteless pursuits of the candid and salable celebrity image, it was his ravenous hounding of Onassis that earned him the most popular contempt. She was an obsession, and still is: "She was my girlfriend, in a way," present-day Galella pathetically opines. Discovering Ron snapping her and her son riding bikes in Central Park, she told her guards to "smash his camera," and he was arrested, which led to him suing Onassis in a 1972 case that won her a restraining order. This litigiousness (puffed up as First Amendment crusadering), combined with his sociopathic disinterest in the harm he causes, reveals a dark side of Galella that Gast's pluckily scored and easygoing portrait of him as an affable prankster generally whitewashes. "We all miss her," says Ron about Princess Diana, who died in a high-speed chase with paparazzi. You're not sure if he means the human race will miss her as a person, or the paparazzi will miss her as a cash cow.
While Gast neglects the possibility that his subject is actually evil, his procession of old quotes and talking heads are wide-ranging in the opinions they express. Liz Smith may not be an ideal champion, and fashion rag magnate Bonnie Fuller defends her/Ron's existences dubiously when she claims that people are "born with a gossip gene" ("Ancient Egyptians probably gossiped about the Pharaohs!"). But Andy Warhol, who called Galella his favorite photographer, nailed the work's appeal when he said, "A great photograph shows the famous doing something unfamous." Millions agree, and the consumers, along with the celebrities themselves who thrive on exposure, cannot be separated from paparazzi in the triangular machinery, or exempted from complicity.
In an old clip, Tom Snyder asks Galella if he isn't "feeding an appetite that shouldn't be fed," but Ron's philosophy on his life's work doesn't penetrate much deeper than "They want, I give." Gast similarly leaves questions unanswered, but he raises plenty, such as if Galella's work belongs on the museum walls where it increasingly appears (Chuck Close and the late former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving are the most emphatic in believing that it doesn't). Smash His Camera's etching around these gray areas makes it riveting viewing—that, and all of its pictures of famous people.
Opens July 30