It is certainly striking that the wisest line in a documentary that features academics, professional photographers and reflective film stars comes, of all people, from Paris Hilton. I quote from memory, but somewhere in the middle of Adrian Grenier’s Teenage Paparazzo the world’s most famous heiress says with her usual rigid composure: “They [the paparazzi] are annoying and all in your everyday life, but doing what we do in LA, we couldn’t live without them either”. It may not be the height of philosophical sophistication, but few sentences could better sum up the cautionary tale to which this highly entertaining but inconclusive documentary film boils down to: the tabloid culture is a dangerous snake pit of mutual exploitation where victims and chasers make the rules according to their circumstances and where all you need is a camera to cross the blurred line that separates the ones from the others.
Adrian Grenier was a familiar but relatively anonymous supporting actor, maybe best known as Anne Hathaway’s boyfriend in The Devil Wears Prada, until he became a celebrity for playing a celebrity in the hit series Entourage.
That, he tells us in his documentary Teenage Paparazzo, made him curious about the tabloid world. The real triggering factor behind the project, however, was a chance encounter with Austin Visschedyk outside a LA club. When Grenier first saw 13-year-old Austin approaching him he thought he was just a fan looking for an autograph until the precocious adolescent shot 30 rapid-fire shots at him with his professional camera. Grenier decided then to make a documentary to explore the paparazzi world from the perspective of this most unusual photographer.
At the beginning of the film Austin is your average Californian home schooled kid who can wait until 4 AM every morning outside LA hippest clubs to get a good shot that can bring him, in his own words, between $500 and $1000. As they shoot the film Austin’s own popularity grows in an unexpected way and we can see a dangerous role reversal in which the chaser becomes celebrity, tabloid prey and even the main character of his own TV reality show. Austin’s obvious behaviour change is reinforced through the indifference of his mother, who only seems to react to it because of his son’s opposition to her restaurant choices.
In his film Grenier traces back the origin of the ‘paparazzo’ term to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, explores the legal background of the personal privacy issue and tries to identify the social and cultural context in which the tabloid culture can flourish, but half an hour into the film one realises that Teenage Paparazzo is more compelling as entertainment than as a serious attempt to investigate the reasons and consequences of its subject-matter. In fact, through the insistence in the use of celebrity chasing scenes, the film turns into a relatively highbrow version of the OK Magazine that it is supposed to criticise or at least to scrutinise.
This double perspective of voyeurism and Austin’s transformation constitute the most interesting aspect of the film: a sort of Beverly Hills update of the “mirror into the mirror into the mirror” device that the great Douglas Sirk so brilliantly used in his films as instrument of social criticism. In his 1955 classic All That Heaven Allows Sirk orchestrates an extraordinary scene. Jane Wyman’s children give her a TV set as tacit compensation for her having dumped the irresistibly handsome but socially unacceptable Rock Hudson. As Wyman sees her own reflection in the TV screen she becomes aware of her own loneliness, but at the same time we are watching her watching herself. There we have the perfect expression of the pleasure this film is all about in all its human and ruthless fascination. Life. And the imitation of life. And the imitation of the imitation. (Text continues after video)
As we watch Teenage paparazzo one cannot help but wonder. Didn’t Grenier see the danger of his risky game? And if he did, why didn’t he stop? Academics, intellectuals, film stars and simple celebrities all give their contribution to the reflection, but it is Paris Hilton, who is in her own element when talking about the tabloid world, who steals every scene she is in. In an instructive effort, Grenier tells her the story of Narcissus, who drowned by falling in love with his own reflection in a pond. She listens with that distant attention with which she seems to observe everything around her and then asks unapologetically: ‘Is that based on true facts?’ As she knows better that any of us do, she will certainly need the paparazzi.