Sundance 2010: ‘Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work’ and ‘Smash His Camera’ are sympathetic portraits of unlikely subjects


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Monday night saw the world premiere of two films from Sundance’s documentary feature competition: ‘Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work,’ directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, and ‘Smash His Camera,’ directed by Leon Gast. Both films take as their subjects characters about which it is easy to make assumptions, and then try to find something beyond that.

The Rivers film is a clever mix of the comedian’s scabrously relentless stand-up -- barely minutes into the film she has dropped a C-bomb in referring to her own daughter -- while also providing intimate, unguarded glimpses into what makes Rivers tick, what has kept her and her career going for decades.


The film opens with a series of startling close-ups of Rivers’ face without makeup, slowly showing as she puts herself together. The message seems clear form the start: This film will examine both the mask and what’s behind it.

Rivers gave the filmmakers seemingly complete access, being seen in dressing rooms, her palatial New York City apartment, on stage and elsewhere. During the course of the 14 months of filming, she did countless stand-up dates in venues large and small, performed at the Kennedy Center, filmed (and won) ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ published and promoted two books, dropped her longtime manager, sold jewelry on a television shopping channel, staged a play in Edinburgh and London, did another television show (which isn’t even seen onscreen) and maintained a workload that would seem impossible for someone even much younger than 75.

Hers is a tale of showbiz and survival. In one of the film’s most revealing moments, she quiets a heckler by declaring that comedy should be about laughing at anything. As a way of putting her career in perspective and creating a newfound appreciation for the anxiety that lies behind her abrasive persona, ‘Joan Rivers’ really is quite a piece of work.

Following the screening at the Temple Theater, the directors introduced Rivers, who received a standing ovation. She answered questions in a mix of acerbic zingers and sincere reflection, such as when she responded to a question about her family life with, ‘I had a very happy childhood, so I don’t know where this came from.’

Asked a question about whether she gets offers to appear in feature films, she replied, ‘No, that’s why I’m here.’

The nuance, sensitivity and understanding shown to its subject by ‘Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work’ is almost entirely absent from Leon Gast’s ‘Smash His Camera,’ a portrait of longtime paparazzo photographer Ron Galella. Gast mostly seems amused by Galella, and so portrays his more extreme tactics, and in particular his wildly reckless driving, as cute and harmless fun.


The film touches on, but never explore in depth, issues raised by Galella’s work and his subsequent notoriety -- what makes an artist, where is the line between private and public life, and what’s the relationship between the media and its subjects.

Galella, in particular in his infamous showdowns with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, seems much too close to a real-life version of Rupert Pupkin from ‘The King of Comedy,’ a character whose own myopia and self-delusion lead to dark corners of human behavior. For Gast to paper over so many of the issues raised by Galella for a softly congratulatory portrait seems like a missed opportunity, a blurry snap that missed the shot rather than a piece of offhanded iconography.

--Mark Olsen