“You know how they say the line between fiction and reality is getting blurred?” asks Adrian Grenier. “Well, that’s been happening to me, big time.” A split screen shows examples of each experience, Grenier’s life as Vince Chase on Entourage, smiling for a barrage of photographers, and his own life, as Adrian Grenier, smiling for a barrage of photographers.
With this neat set of matching images, Teenage Paparazzo establishes at least a couple of foci, namely, the star’s relationship with the picture-snapping press and his relationship with that relationship, as he portrays it on TV. As Grenier goes on to examine in his directorial debut, these relationships are both based on other line blurrings, for instance, between public and private lives, or professional and personal responsibilities. And, the film proposes, nowhere is this blurring more evident, complex, and vexing as it is in the relationship between stars and paparazzi.
Grenier is inspired to consider this particular aspect of his life when he meets 13-year-old paparazzo Austin Visschedyk. As the child snaps his photo and calls his name, Grenier says, “I decided to turn the camera on the paparazzo, and through this boy try to understand them and try to make sense of this insane celebrity world.” His documentary, which premieres 27 September on HBO, reveals that the “sense” he ends up making is predictably reductive, having to do with the participants’ mutual exploitation, mutual resentment, and mutual distrust. But it is also admirably unresolved, as Grenier develops what seem personal friendships with Austin and his mother Jane, and contemplates his own attitudes toward paparazzi, fame, and other celebrities.
The personal inflection of Teenage Paparazzo is simultaneously annoying and mildly interesting. Repeatedly, Grenier voices concerns that the boy is awfully young to be out on Hollywood streets at 3am (a worry articulated by Paris Hilton, of all people), and that he might be injured on the job (Eva Longoria Parke: “He might be run over by a car, or trampled by the other guys”) or a crime victim (Austin explains that he carries pepper spray to defend himself against “hoboes that are really drunk and fucked up and… crazy,” as the film shows a man who fits that description and Austin admonishes, “Don’t come near me, pal!”). Jane suggests it’s okay that Austin has taken up this interest because he’s a good kid who has promised her not to party with stars or his older colleagues but only to do his business and come home. Whether his father gives him a ride or he rides his bike or scooter to follow up on tips, Austin appears independent-minded and frankly remarkably self-possessed.
At least at first. The film tracks Austin’s increasing immersion in the “insane celebrity world,” as he becomes something of a celebrity himself, fawned over by women who think he’s cute (Michelle Rodriguez commends what he’s doing as “dope,” adding, “You must make good money”) and pursued by E! to star in his own reality series. Grenier goes at this phenomenon emerging before him (and in part because of him, as his crew’s cameras on Austin make him an object of interest) from a couple of directions. First, he tries out what it’s like to be a paparazzo, following Brooke Shields and Eva Longoria Parker along with a swarm of other men with cameras (when Austin suggests he’ll get in the way, because he’ll be recognized and the other photogs will turn their lenses on him, Grenier naïvely imagines his “camera will be my disguise”). When Longoria Parker spots him and says, “You look great!”, Grenier owns up to the thrill he’s just shared with his fellow paps, gushing, “We ran really fast to get here.”
As Longoria Parker’s response underscores, Grenier’s experience is fundamentally different from his fellows’. Recognized by other stars (and interviewees in his film), followed by a film crew, and plainly not desperate to get shots to pay rent, Grenier allows that his view is skewed. And so he also looks into other views, in his second approach to the problem, which is to speak with “experts.”
These include stars who’ve given the matter some thought, including Matt Damon (“They know where you live and they know what you like to do, and they follow you and they hide sometimes”), Jaleel White (“You see this luminary who has no problems does in fact have problems that I can relate to, that’s an emotional painkiller”), Whoopi Goldberg (“You used to not be able to write stuff unless there was some truth in it… On the internet, you don’t have to prove anything. You just have to put it out there and wssht! there it is”), and Hilton (introduced with the caption, “Global Starlette and Entrepreneur,” suggesting the film’s and her own apt sense of humor about what she does “for a living”).
Grenier expands his experts pool by visiting magazine editors in New York (where he learns little except the obvious, that they pick photos that help consumers feel “connected” to stars) and writers who have studied (or at least published books on) celebrity culture, from Jake Halpern (Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction) to Henry Jenkins, whose interview with Grenier at a baseball game turns into a celebrity event itself, flashed on Fenwick’s video screen and noted by the game commentators (“Hey, that’s Adrian Grenier! He’s being interviewed!”). Jenkins argues that stars serve as a “vehicle for us to share values,” and plants the idea for Grenier that gossip tells more about the gossipers than their objects.
This seems something of a turning point for the film, though to where remains unclear. While it’s helpful to observe that in “this insane celebrity world,” the celebrities are incidental, the film turns back to the effects of celebrity on Austin. As he starts misbehaving with his mom and missing appointments with Grenier, the filmmaker decides to play the adult in this relationship, to expose the risks of “hyperreality” and turn back to “real life.”
It’s certainly clever that his teaching tool is the film he’s made. The scene where Grenier sits down to watch it with Austin and Jane works all ways, redrawing a line between experiences (not unlike the split screens that open the film) while also insisting on their interdependence. Grenier’s focus on instructing—even “saving”—Austin suggests that h is dispensing understanding, that his own lesson is already learned, whether in the filmmaking process or in the friendship with Austin. But given what you’ve seen, no lesson seems settled. Indeed, the line between “fiction” and “reality” they’re still talking about is only more blurred. The boys’ shared conclusion that turning the camera off is the way to initiate a “real” friendship, seems awfully neat, an attempt to contain the movie’s messiness. But Teenage Paparazzo gets away from both filmmaker and subject. It’s buoyed by that very messiness, careening between insight and silliness, staged scenes and apparent surprises.