Monday, September 27, 2010

Little Boy Lost: A Review of 'Teenage Paparazzo'...

When I was in high school I sold celebrity photographs online. Some I took myself at fan events I attended but most were part of a package from a select photo agency. They would sell the images at a base price, and then I would list them on eBay at that base price and keep the profits all for myself. I thought I was pretty entrepreneurial. But that was nothing compared to Austin Visschedyk, the Teenage Paparazzo.

Visschedyk, subject and star of Entourage star Adrien Grenier's HBO documentary, was barely pubescent when he began working as a photographer, staking out the streets of Los Angeles, looking for the hottest celebrities, snapping them coming out of shops, sitting in restaurants, or just walking their dogs down the street. A homeschooled teen who was already showing above average intelligence, Visschedyk was bored and without the outlet of having school friends with whom to pal around. He didn't have any outlet, really. He was just a kid looking for his place in the world who didn't seem to have much guidance. Left to his own devices, he really could have gotten into much more trouble. But instead, he took his hobby of photography and turned it into a very lucrative "part time" career.

Meeting him for the first time when the pint-size paparazzo shot a photo of him, Grenier struck up a conversation and then a friendship with the young talent. Because say what you will about the business of paparazzi photography, but Visschedyk is an extremely talented photographer. Through a few stills in the early portion of the documentary, we see his eye for color and framing and know that if he put his mind toward the artistry, he could be huge. But he lives in La-La-Land, where art is overshadowed by popularity. And Visschedyk was powerless to get swept up in it.

How could he not be? Because he is young and cute, celebrities actually stop and talk to him as he snaps away, offering him opportunities that the rest of the crowds swarming whatever club or bar could only salivate at. And the those in the crowd also offer Visschedyk courtesies they do not share with each other. Since he is not yet of driving age, he gets dropped off or skateboards to any location, and when the person they are there to photograph is "on the move," Visschedyk often bums rides with the other paparazzi. Needless to say, the grown men (and few women) are not making those offers to each other. But for some reason they like this kid; they are charmed by him; maybe they don't even really see him as competition.

And the audience is charmed by him, too. Despite the fact that he is truly just another privileged kid getting special treatment. Despite the fact that he calls the celebrities he photographs his "friends" and genuinely seems to believe it. Despite his sometimes selfish and shallow behavior toward his mother and the few age-appropriate peers with which he interacts. Despite the fact that he gets so sucked into his newfound fame and begins chasing the high of being in front of the cameras, even going so far as to blow of Grenier for a "better offer." Despite the fact that he skips out on his studies to chase Paris or Lindsay or Britney or whoever was big that week. He's still a kid, and he's making his mistakes, and regardless of the front he puts up to be the "cool guy," that keeps him extremely grounded and even a bit sad.

Throughout the course of the documentary, Grenier follows Visschedyk to "gigs," interviews him, his family, those who have been caught by his lens, and his "co-workers," and even steps behind the lens himself to see what Visschedyk goes through to get the money shot. The story is as much about Grenier, then, as it is the titular kid. Grenier is stepping into a world he only has preconceived notions about and learning from the experience.

Unfortunately, Grenier is a much more adept actor than storyteller. His voice-over is flat and forced; the scenes unfolding really should speak for themselves. When issues arise that cause Grenier to question whether or not he was exploiting Visschedyk the way he set out to claim Visschedyk was exploiting the celebrities, he seems truly surprised. It is as if Grenier grabbed a camera and jumped in without any thought to where this story would go or the issues that it would raise. What about Visschedyk's parents, for example? Shouldn't some light be shed on why they allow their son to patrol Hollywood Boulevard until three a.m. on a weeknight? At times Grenier seems to get lost within the story that is unfolding around him: it spills out as quickly as Visschedyk speeds after Paris or Lindsay or Britney on his skateboard, and he can't keep up. At one point, even admits he isn't sure how to end the story.

So he shows Visschedyk and his mother the footage he has cut together so far. And in the most meta of ways films the whole screening and incorporates the reactionary footage into the final product. It is the most literal of ways for a documentary to hold a mirror up to its subject and ask that subject to see its own flaws and change.

And then we cut to a year later. Visschedyk is driving now; his voice has dropped; his hair is way less Justin Bieber-ish. All physical attributes that bode well to assume he has matured immensely. But the scene that follows, which should serve to showcase just how much he has grown internally, feels scripted, as if he is posturing in a whole new way now. Visschedyk is a savvy kid-- maybe moreso than most-- and he understands this industry and how to craft a story through pictures (even better than Grenier does). So his final "All American boy" moments feel false, as if they are just for the cameras.

Visschedyk has said that he's done with paparazzo work-- that he no longer feels like those guys are the big role models up to whom he once looked. Is that progress? Or is that a cocky kid who knows he has surpassed them and can no longer aspire to what he has already achieved. In the next breath he says he still plans to photograph celebrities, anyway. Is that a regression? Or does he mean he wants to move into mastering the art of portrait photography or photojournalism?

Whatever the intent behind Visschedyk's final words in the film, he is still a teenager, still a kid, and still growing; he doesn't have to resign himself to any of them just yet. And luckily, he will always have this ninety-minute reminder of the kind of man he was becoming as a paparazzo. For better or worse, as the years go on, he will be able to rewind and reflect and reevaluate whether or not he likes that guy.

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