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Friday, Feb. 4, 2011
Cinema's latest odd couple: the star and the shutterbug
A drian Grenier was an actor with a long resume of bit parts before he landed the role of Hollywood actor Vince in the HBO series "Entourage," which launched him to stardom. Apparently not lacking a sense of irony, Grenier was bemused to find that having played a celebrity of whom everyone wanted a piece in "Entourage," he had in fact become that in real life as well. He was particularly mystified by how, suddenly, his every move seemed to attract swarms of paparazzi.
When he was ambushed one night by a paparazzo who was barely into puberty, Grenier took the opportunity to take him aside and ask what's up. The kid was one Austin Visschedyk, a home-schooled 14-year-old photographer who grew up in Hollywood with an ambition to make it as a professional paparazzo. As it turned out, he was already there, making $500 to $2,000 per shot of starlets and other tabloid fodder.
Grenier had trained the camera on himself before — in the documentary film "Shot in the Dark" (2002), which saw him trying to track down the father who had abandoned him as a child — and he decided to do it again with "Teenage Paparazzo," tagging along with Visschedyk on his shoots.
Grenier's film starts off by trying to work out what makes Visschedyk tick, but soon branches out into an overall exploration of celebrity culture, the insatiable public desire for candid photos of famous people, and the relentless paparazzi who feed that jones.
Visschedyk is a fascinating character: brash and precocious, thriving in the dog-eat-dog world of the paparazzi, and entirely obsessed with scoring pics of the famous. Perhaps more interesting are his parents: What sort of people are OK with their child staking out Los Angeles nightclubs at three in the morning, or spending his days stalking Kim Kardashian?
Then there's the mutually parasitic relationship between Grenier and Visschedyk: While the boy gives Grenier access to the ranks of the suspicious paparazzi — and for people who do nothing but aggressively photograph and film others, man, they sure don't like being on the other end of it — Visschedyk also milks his relationship with his star friend for all its worth. By film's end, Visschedyk himself is a minor celebrity, with groupies and a reality show in the works, and Grenier is wondering whether he's created a monster.
"Teenage Paparazzo" covers all the bases, with Grenier giving equal time to voices as diverse as "celebutante" Paris Hilton, unapologetic longtime pap Steve Sands, author Jake Halpern (of "Fame Junkies"), and the editorial staff of OK! Magazine ("First for celebrity news!"). He is generous to the paparazzi, recording their perspective accurately — part of being a celebrity is that you have no privacy, they insist — but the idea that they're only helping the stars' careers with the coverage is laughable; viewing something such as the atrociously intrusive snaps of supermodel Stephanie Seymour kissing her son on the beach makes clear the schadenfreude that underpins celebrity worship. Even Visschedyk admits that his dream shot would be of David Beckham with a fat joint in one hand and a girl who isn't Posh in the other; "That would get me so much money!" he gushes.
Stylistically, Grenier has a populist, first-person approach to documentary that — like "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" (2008) or "Stevie" (2002) — has the director seemingly just asking questions, which he then tries to answer on film. It's a disarming approach, but its very naturalism calls attention to the points that do feel a bit staged, particularly the film's closing scene.
Overall, Grenier has fashioned a good introduction to the phenomenon of celebrity parasitism, and if even Hilton can come to understand the concept of "parasocial" relationships, then the viewer will too. The only complaint is he could have gone even further: Social networking has us all mainlining the attention-craving high of microcelebrity, baring our lives (and sometimes breasts) before the public in exchange for "followers." And whether it's mixi stalkers or getting tagged in a bleary-eyed, bad-hair shot on Facebook, the down side is similar. Privacy is, like, so 20th century.