Sunday, August 1, 2010

Double Documentary with Abe: Smash His Camera and Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel

Smash His Camera
Directed by Leon Gast
Released July 30, 2010

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel
Directed by Brigitte Berman
Released July 30, 2010

This weekend at the movies, two unlikely heroes emerge from the depths of certainly controversial and arguably destitute professions. Both are senior citizens – one is 79, the other is 84 – and both are working just as hard as they were fifty years ago. Ron Galella, paparazzo extraordinaire, still races to events to photograph all the big stars and doesn’t let the lack of a press pass dissuade him. Hugh Hefner, founder and CEO of Playboy, still reviews the entire magazine before it goes to press each issue, insisting on some of the signature features and article standards that have been in place since close to the inception of the publication. Neither shows any signs of letting up or slowing down anytime soon, and the almost unparalleled devotion to their unconventional crafts makes them utterly captivating subjects.

One privilege enjoyed by documentary filmmakers Gast and Berman is that their subjects are still alive and in good health. Galella and Hefner can speak for themselves and share their sides of their own stories. That doesn’t hinder either filmmaker from exhaustively researching the events in their lives. Gast interviews art experts and therapists to examine the validity and longevity of Galella’s impromptu photos and his obsession with certain celebrities. Berman starts off with celebrities as diverse as Gene Simmons and George Lucas and then zeroes in on some of Hefner’s closest friends and colleagues, from elderly former staff members to James Caan. The compilation of interviews and opinions is staggering on both ends, and offers a remarkably insightful glimpse into each of these much-reviled men, especially when posited next to their own recollections and personal statements.

Though the despicableness of what they do may be equivalent to some, Galella and Hefner are not completely alike. While Galella was sued by Jackie Onassis and punched in the face by Marlon Brando several decades ago, he hasn’t enjoyed the overwhelming publicity that Hefner has. And even though one interviewee compares Galella’s New Jersey residence to that of Tony Soprano, it’s hardly the Playboy Mansion. Yet both men have contributed in an equally intriguing way to the society around them. Gallela has millions of photographs documenting multiple decades in his basement, and his lab technicians find treasures like an old photo of a curly-haired Larry David back before he was famous, standing next to a more well-known celebrity of the time. From the beginnings of his empire, Hefner ran a color-blind organization and even played an active role in the repeal of anti-abortion and anti-contraception laws in a number of states. These men have surprising virtues that may tempt their haters to reconsider their feelings towards them, and it’s especially interesting to see how they have both changed and not change in the many years since they entered into their respective fields.

Neither movie paints its subject as without faults by any measure. The former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has plenty of nasty things to say about Gallela, and he never seems to acknowledge that what he does may in fact be interpreted as an invasion of privacy by the celebrities he so doggedly follows (or stalks). Hefner has plenty of enemies, and even his loyal secretary admits she often thought he was the worst man in the world to work for years and years ago. What becomes clear throughout both of these films, however, is that it’s worth taking a closer look at what these two men whose careers have each spanned over fifty years are contributing to society. While it’s unlikely that those unwilling to consider either of these people as a positive force in the world will opt to open their minds enough to see this film, these two films are nonetheless fascinating and worthwhile portraits of two oft-misunderstood men.

Both: B+

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