Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 02 May 2010
Source HBO Films 35mm print
Categories The 2010 Independent Film Festival Boston
Entourage star Adrian Grenier’s new documentary Teenage Paparazzo would probably have been perfectly passable as a standard character study, mixing talking head commentary with footage of young celebrity photographer Austin Visschedyk at work. Visschedyk is a likable kid, and his unusual nighttime activities: staking out Britney Spears at Los Angeles nightclubs instead of hitting the books or playing a videogame, make him an interesting kid, too. But happily for us, Grenier uses Visschedyk’s story as a jumping off point for a surprisingly insightful and thoroughly entertaining meditation on celebrity and our collective obsession with it. If you have an interest in what it means to be famous right this minute, Teenage Paparazzo is just about unmissable.
Grenier first discovered Visschedyk when the then-thirteen-year-old snapped the actor’s picture during a night out, and the young paparazzo, dazzled (at least initially) by his new friend’s celebrity, gives Grenier intimate access to his celeb-chasing world. For his part, Grenier attempts to withhold any snap (if you’ll forgive the pun) judgments on Visschedyk and his older camera-wielding brethren, insisting that he is looking to understand the paparazzi rather than condemn them. Visschedyk himself is endearing, a clever kid who is sweetly expert and enthusiastic in his work, and who knows how to use his young age to his advantage (many celebs treat Visschedyk differently, posing for him longer or specifically acknowledging his young age in short, bemused asides). Grenier’s camera follows Visschedyk on high-speed pursuits of all kinds (including an attempt to hunt Paris Hilton down at a burger drive-thru), and even as queasy recollections of violent and even tragic interactions between stars and press spring to mind, we can see why this lifestyle - with its fast pace, high glamour, and big paydays - would appeal to a teenage kid. If we’re honest, we can see why it would appeal to anyone.
Grenier has a strong interest in the workings of the fame game - he became famous for pretending to be someone famous, after all - and with Teenage Paparazzo he exhibits an impressively even hand. The actor humanizes the paparazzi by chatting with a number of Visschedyk’s fellow shooters and even picking up a camera himself (frantically snapping Brooke Shields). He also chats with a handful of famous faces, including gossip-rag favorite Paris Hilton, who admits that her own career depends on the paparazzi for sustenance. There is an uneasy relationship between the stars and the photographers. Veteran paparazzo Steve Sands says that some celebrities have tipped him off about where they would be, so he can get the perfect picture, while Eva Longoria relates a disturbing story about a man taking pictures of her and her friends—from up in a tree.
The film doesn’t whitewash the paparazzi’s invasiveness, and it also explores the double-edged nature of the public’s curiously obsessive relationships with the stars. On the one hand, Grenier allows that celebrity gossip can simply be a form of escapism for those of us who aren’t rich and famous. He visits the offices of OK! Magazine and the people there come across as level-headed and warm, insisting that theirs is a “feel-good” tabloid, interested in printing positive stories about the current It Girls and Boys. But Grenier also acknowledges the problematic nature of the omnipresent paparazzi and the blogs, magazines, and TV shows that they feed. Perhaps most interestingly, the film delves into the concept of “parasocial relationships,” the bonds between fans and the celebrities they’ve never met. One interviewee makes the sobering observation that people are spending an increasing amount of time with television and computer screens and a decreasing amount of time with family members and other actual human beings. Photos like Visschedyk’s, or gossip from OK! Magazine, might be sell because it makes people feel like they’re “at the party” with their favorite famous people—but in reality, they still aren’t, and might be missing out on parties of their own.
In addition to highlighting the more unsettling aspects of celebrity obsession, Grenier has some fun with its inherent absurdity—it becomes so much about itself that it becomes about nothing. Teenage Paparazzo derives some of its greatest ironies from the fact that Grenier’s celeb-chasing young companion starts to become a celebrity himself, turning up on gossip blogs and in magazines and weighing proposals to star in his own reality TV show. At one point, Grenier is filming Visschedyk while a separate camera crew films another young paparazzo. At the same time, both young men are being profiled for a teen magazine. Grenier observes that everyone is shooting everyone, but nothing is actually happening anymore. Perhaps that observation crystallizes why a film like Teenage Paparazzo is important. The fame game is about seeing and being seen, but as it begins to take up more and more of the public’s time, it’s worth pausing to ask what we’re looking at it.
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