Guest Column by Ben Marcus
What is a celebrity photo worth these days? And why is it worth so much to catch a glimpse of an actor or actress being hustled into an SUV by three bodyguards? None of the paparazzi who hover around the bottom of my stairs will use the “P” word to describe themselves, nor will they tell me what top dollar is for a photo. But it must be enough to make it worth their time to spend an entire weekend hoping for a two-second glimpse, and worth their life to stand in the middle of Pacific Coast Highway, looking through the viewfinder of a $6,000 digital camera with a $3,000 telephoto lens, as traffic goes whizzing past at 60 mph.
My across-the-street neighbor is a major movie star. I live in a third-floor apartment that has a sweeping view of Malibu from Third Point to Carson and I spend a great deal of time keeping a weather eye on the ocean-passing dolphins and whales, the wind, the tide, the swell and what those variables might mean at First Point. Looking out the window I couldn’t help but notice a great deal of mostly weekend activity in the small beach bungalow directly across the street: big black SUVs and Mercedes-Benz sedans driven by big men who looked like security. A Laker or a rapper or something, I figured, until the cable guys set me straight. The cable guys know everything about Malibu.
So now I know, but I’m not saying because I am here to talk about the paparazzi, not to become one. I already managed to anger a major TV star for repeating a private conversation in an L.A. Weekly story. What I did was an intrusion, and he was right to be upset.
My neighbor is a movie star, significant enough to need at least three bodyguards when she is in her beach cottage for the weekend, and significant enough to draw a regular platoon of celebrity photographers who prowl the beach in front of her house, the sidewalks on both sides of the highway and sometimes screech to a halt in the center lane, hopping out, in traffic, just to catch the money shot.
It’s pretty ugly, when you see the paparazzi thing in person, especially when it’s right there, on your front steps, taking up all the good street parking, prowling about like remora with $6,000 cameras, those guys (and some girls) looking at me suspiciously when I come down to empty the garbage. The “lurkerazzi” are the sketchy ones, not me, but they are so sketchy they spread the sketchiness around to everything within a hundred yards. And it’s just creepy.
Now she has caught my attention, and it feels like Pope-watching, waiting for the smoke to come out of the chimney. When the SUV is in the driveway and the white one is waiting on the street, it’s like the Union Jack flying over Buckingham Palace. The Queen is in the house. And when she is in, she is invisible. When she moves, she moves very fast, because I have never caught a glimpse of her, a glimpse that is apparently worth a great deal of money, because any time the flag is up, the paparazzi are around. They run across the street, get the shot, and then walk back across PCH, in traffic, looking through the viewfinders of their digital cameras to see if they got the shot.
Someone is going to get killed, and that explains why a Sheriff’s deputy is there often, sometimes with lights flashing, making sure no one gets hurt. Preferential treatment for a star? Perhaps. But maybe the Sheriff just feels sorry for her, as I do. No matter how bad you sing, or how many bad movies you have made, or who you are married to, or were married to, or are dating: no one deserves to have their privacy invaded like that.
Some people have trouble feeling sorry for celebrities, but my solution to the whole deal goes back to “Ocean’s II.” There is a scene where the lads steal a “pinch”-a large-sized electro magnetic pulse generator-to briefly take out the city lights of Las Vegas. Maybe this movie star should sneak up the hill to the Hughes Research Laboratory-where the laser was developed in 1960-and grant them some research dough to develop a purse-sized, small-scale EMP that would work at close range. Zap some of those $6,000 digital cameras and fry their circuitry, and the paparazzi would think twice about hovering around. There are dangers in this plan. If a paparazzi had a pacemaker it would be curtains, but you really have to wonder where some of these guys hearts are.
If they got gold-plated wallets, their hearts would be safe.
It’s Sunday afternoon and the star is getting ready to go home. There is an SUV in the driveway, parked at an angle so there will be about 10 milliseconds of exposure from the gate to the blacked-out windows of the car. There is another SUV on the street and a small pickup truck, and there are three guys standing in the driveway. One is an older, Morgan Freeman-ish gentleman with a moustache who looks like he could open a can of whup-ass. The other two look like former SAS. Directly below me, on the balcony, two paparazzi are staked out like snipers, lying in wait for a glimpse of blonde. There are six others on this side of the street and two others standing too close on the other side. The security guards are warning them back, politely, even smiling. They are stepping backward, into the street. Dumb.
I went down the stairs to take a look around and got stink-eye from three of the “Ps.” Some of the paparazzi in Malibu look like clubbers, others like Euro trash and some like frat boys. They are easy to spot because they all have a lurky aura that is equal parts guilt and greed. They know what they are doing is creepy, and yet they still do it, aggressively, and that makes them even creepier. Sometimes you see them standing in the checkout line at Ralphs flipping through the tabloids, adding up their buyouts, however much that is. I asked what a paparazzi shot was worth these days, and two of them just glared and the other said they weren’t paparazzi: “We feel sorry for her actually,” he said.
I dumped the trash and walked back upstairs and missed the whole thing. By the time I got to my window-maybe three minutes’ time-it was over. The SUVs were gone, and so were the photographers. She moves fast, but so do they. The flag is down, the Queen is gone.