NYFF 2002 REVIEW: Sex, Narcissism, and Violence; "Auto Focus" Plays To Schrader's Strengths
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
(indieWIRE: 10.08.02) -- If you're a fan of 1960s television, you'll remember Bob Crane as the star of "Hogan's Heroes," the popular sitcom about Allied soldiers in a German prison camp.
If you're a fan of celebrity scandals, you'll remember him in the different context favored by Paul Schrader's new movie. "Auto Focus" entertainingly portrays Crane's rise to fame, but it's more fascinated by his experiences as a minor-league comic whose sex drive burned more brightly than his limited star-power could sustain, ultimately ruining his career and leading to untimely death.
This is a perfect subject for Schrader, who has chronicled the wiles and wages of sin in movies from "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" to "American Gigolo" and "Affliction." "Auto Focus" is a perfect title for the film, too -- evoking not only the photographic gizmos that were Crane's hobby, but also the narcissism of his personality and the self-absorption of the show-biz world in which he traveled.
Until he became a household name in "Hogan's Heroes," the congenitally winsome Crane was a small-time entertainer with a typical late-'50s lifestyle. It's not surprising that TV smiled on him, since he was a naturally telegenic type who projected clean-cut sincerity with every flash of his ingratiating eyes. Behind the scenes he was a tad more complicated, though, fretting about his career and thumbing girlie magazines when his wife and kids weren't looking.
"Auto Focus" sketches Crane's personality, then begins his downward spiral by introducing John Carpenter, a technology wonk he meets on the CBS lot. Carpenter spends his days tinkering with video equipment -- then a brand-new field -- and his nights cruising bars for excitement. Crane hesitates about five seconds before joining his new friend on the strip-club circuit, where he exploits his celebrity status to pick up star-struck girls.
Soon they're having foursomes while Carpenter's hidden cameras roll. Rumors start flying, "Hogan's Heroes" is cancelled, Crane's first and second marriages fall apart, and even his friendship with Carpenter begins to sour. Next stop: the lowly dinner-theater circuit and a lonely hotel room in Scottsdale, Arizona, where an unseen killer bludgeons him to death with a camera tripod. Will the real Peeping Tom please stand up?
Crane is played uncannily well by Greg Kinnear -- who, lest we forget, first gained prominence as the wisecracking host of "Talk Soup" on the E! channel, another revealer of vice lurking beneath people's public facades. Kinnear makes Crane a smarmy symphony of self-delusion, unable to drop his glib, audience-pleasing mask even as his world is clearly falling apart around him.
Willem Dafoe is equally strong as Carpenter, who presents an unusual acting challenge since his past and motives are left deliberately vague by Schrader's screenplay. He's almost an abstract force of evil -- Crane's alter ego, perhaps, the pitted skull beneath the fresh-faced skin. Yet he's also a human being whose interactions with his high-profile friend take on a psychological complexity that Schrader is wise enough to explore through suggestive hints rather than reductive analyses.
Despite its violent ending, "Auto Focus" isn't a moralistic film. Schrader shows that Crane's fatal weakness isn't his voracity for sex, but his selfishness and inability to recognize the reality of anything beyond his own silky eyelashes. Crane and Carpenter are stuck in a perpetual adolescence, laid bare when they sit and masturbate together while watching videos of themselves with different women. There are times when Crane tries to break free of Carpenter's influence -- he's really ticked when he spots his buddy's hand on his backside in a videotaped group-grope, for instance -- but the trickster always wins him back with the lure of a new toy or gadget. While their codependency clearly has homosexual overtones, neither loses any opportunity to protest how totally straight he is.
At the time of his death in 1978, it was easy to see Crane as a self-destructive sinner. Now we may feel he got a raw deal, since today it's the secrets and failings of stars that make us love them, not their too-good-to-be-true public images. In the current climate, an appropriately timed outrage can advance a celebrity's career instead of harming it -- think of Hugh Grant's famous blow-job, or the hugely popular shows celebrating Ozzy Osbourne's bleeped-out mouth and Anna Nicole Smith's unabashed appetite. Imagine the ratings of a reality show that followed Crane and Carpenter during a night on the town, splicing in selected clips from their trove of forbidden videos!
But such was not to be: Crane lost everything, and will always be known more for his sexual fetishes than his once-flourishing career. Fame -- ain't it a bitch? Schrader tells it like it was, not so much anatomizing Crane's dark side as poking and probing it like a cadaver on a lab table, with camera work that progresses from crisply calculated tripod shots to a hand-held instability that mirrors Crane's own disintegrating life. No filmmaker has explored the fascination of evil with more tenacity and insight, and "Auto Focus" finds Schrader near the peak of his powers.