The news of Princess Diana's death, and the speculations about the role that tabloid photographers might have played in the tragedy, recently sent me back to revisit a film I hadn't looked at for a long time. Although the picture was released way back in 1960, the insights I found there seemed so topical, so contemporary, that I thought it worthwhile to mention it here. The film is "La Dolce Vita" ("The Sweet Life"), Federico Fellini's jaundiced look at the decadence of upper class life in Rome. If you're trying to make some sense of a world in which the market for sensational photographs is hot enough to push people beyond the bounds of common decency in the pursuit of such pictures, I highly recommend that you seek out the video release of this Italian masterpiece.
Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is a writer for the tabloids, covering the social comings and goings of the rich and famous to pay the rent until he can turn his hand to more meaningful writing. Early in the film we see Marcello skulking about a posh club, buttonholing waiters to ask them about the food and drink ordered by a visiting prince and his date. Marcello's counterpart, a tabloid photographer whom we will see throughout the film, deftly positions himself and snaps a photo of the prince's table. The prince is outraged, but the photographer is gone and the damage is done. Just another day at the office for Marcello and his photographer companion.
Later, Fellini gives us an insight into why the tabloid photographers are tolerated. We watch the arrival of Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), an American movie star, at the local airport. The photographers swarm like flies, but here they are welcome. They are the conduit to the publicity without which stars like Sylvia would wither on the vine. When the photographers ask her to go back in the plane and come out again so they can get more shots, she gladly accommodates them.
That evening, however, Sylvia pays the price for her encouragement of the tabloid press. When she walks away from an argument with her movie star fiancee, Robbie (Lex Barker), the same photographers swarm around her, flashbulbs popping. As she drives away in a car with Marcello, the persistent lens hounds take off in hot pursuit on a motorcycle. (Is this beginning to give you the creeps?)
The following morning, we see Robbie asleep in his convertible, sleeping off a drunk. Photographers hover around his car like vultures, snapping their pictures quietly to avoid waking him. They even reach in and gently move his face to get a better angle. Just then, Marcello drives up with Sylvia. Sensing an opportunity, the photographers wake Robbie and point out to him that his fiancee has been out all night with Marcello. Robbie confronts Sylvia angrily, slapping her as the flashbulbs pop around them. Turning on Marcello, Robbie decks him. As Marcello lies crumpled in a heap on the sidewalk, a voice says, "Marcello, lift your head a bit."
Fellini ratchets the irony up another notch late in the film when a friend of Marcello's, one of the few people Marcello genuinely seems to respect, shoots his children and himself. The man's wife is unaware of the tragedy, so Marcello accompanies the authorities to the bus stop to point her out to them so they can break the news. Naturally, the tabloid photographers are out in force. Before Marcello can get to the widow, they surround her, snapping away relentlessly. The unfortunate woman has no idea why they want her picture. At first she smiles, thinking they have mistaken her for a movie star. Then, in full view of the cameras, she learns of the terrible fate her family has suffered. The police official who must break the news pleads with the photographers to "show some sympathy, just once," but they are not in the sympathy business.
The tabloid press is by no means the only institution that earns Fellini's scorn in this gimlet-eyed portrait of high society, but his characterization of the swarming hordes of photographers attendant upon every movement of the rich and famous was sufficiently compelling to enter the language. You see, the name Fellini gave to Marcello's photographer companion was... Paparazzo.