Auto Focus

Auto Focus

USA, 2002. Rated R. 104 minutes.

Cast: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, Ron Liebman, Bruce Solomon, Michael Rodgers, Kurt Fuller, Christopher Neiman, Lyle Kanouse, Ed Begley Jr, Michael McKean
Writer: Michael Gerbosi, based in part on the book The Murder of Bob Crane, by Robert Graysmith
Music: Angelo Badalamenti, Andrew Barrett (additional music/orchestration)
Cinematographer: Fred Murphy
Producers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Todd Rosken, Patt Dollard, Alicia Allain
Director: Paul Schrader


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

The story of the modest rise and precipitous fall of television star Bob Crane (Hogan's Heroes), Auto Focus is not your typical biopic. Like real life, biographies are sloppy, lacking clear beginnings and endings, and replete with distracting details that filmmakers include for the sake of completeness. In praise of Auto Focus director Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese has said Schrader possesses a talent for adapting difficult source material to the screen because he unerringly hones in on the essence of the story and mercilessly strips away everything else. Though Schrader does not have a screenwriting credit on Auto Focus, its source material (The Murder of Bob Crane, by Robert Graysmith) is adapted with Schrader's same instinct for what is important and what is not.

Auto Focus is not the story of making of Hogan's Heroes, an improbably successful situation comedy about clever Allied prisoners and their slow-witted German captors in a World War Two POW camp, and its six-year run on CBS (1965-1971). Not that the show's tale is uninteresting. Despite its popularity, it was named one of the fifty worst television shows of all time (#5 on the list) in a recent TV Guide feature. Auto Focus does not ignore Hogan's Heroes; in fact, it recreates the show in uncanny detail with actors who nail the characters impeccably, particularly Ron Fuller as Werner Klemperer, a.k.a. Colonel Klink.

The core of Crane's story is something else entirely. Crane was a man addicted to sex, so much so that it cost him career and possibly his life. To document his exploits, Crane and his partner in crime, John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, a frequent Schrader collaborator), pioneered video pornography. Though he hid his lifestyle from his first wife (Rita Wilson), visitors to Crane's home in later years were apt to be subjected to his photo albums bursting with nude Polaroids or extensive library of amateur home videos.

Auto Focus doesn't resemble an addiction movie any more than it looks like a biopic, however--at least not the films about addiction that normally leap to mind, including Schrader's own Affliction. Auto Focus does not set out to be one of those message movies with histrionic acting and didactic homilies about the dangers of overindulgence. The film never even mentions the word "addiction." Crane, in fact, is nothing like your typical movie addict. Clean cut and conservatively dressed (sweaters with khakis or polyester pants), Crane seems to be the sort of guy mothers wish their daughters would bring home. He rarely drinks, usually sticking to grapefruit juice.Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane

Most actors think they're supposed to kick up a storm when they play addicts. Kinnear, an inspired choice to portray Crane's casual likeability, presents Crane simply as a man who doesn't get it. A day without sex is a day wasted. Sex is the most natural thing in the world, isn't it? If people don't understand that, obviously there is something wrong with them, not with him. Crane's priest tells him he must remove himself from temptation in order to avoid it, yet Crane repeatedly fails to do this. His fame enables him to attract women, and Crane shamelessly uses it to his advantage. Then there is his relationship with Carpenter--two men enabling each other's conduct, doing things they might never do alone. In a bit of dramatic license, Auto Focus makes Carpenter and Crane seem inseparable. That does not correspond to the truth, Schrader admits, but he sees their friendship as the centerpiece of Crane's life nonetheless. Carpenter is Crane's most enduring relationship, the bond with Carpenter the only one Crane is able to maintain. Crane is so walled off from everyone else that he can't even sustain a marriage (his second) to a woman who doesn't mind his sexual escapades, Patti Olson (Maria Bello), stage name Sigrid Valdis, who played Klink's secretary Helga beginning with Hogan's second season.

In the grip of addiction and totally self-focused, Crane is not the least bit aware of what his habit is costing him. Crane is carried away until he loses touch with everyone and everything. Only at the end are there glimmers of insight. He has a weird conversation drawn from real life with his son, Bob Crane Jr. (who served as technical advisor and appears in the film as an interviewer for a Christian publication), about reconnecting with basic things, in which he bizarrely discusses the true meaning of the word "orange." But time runs out.

Writing for Scorsese and for other directors (The Mosquito Coast, Patty Hearst, Obsession), Schrader has made a career of examining obsessive characters with distorted perceptions of reality. He has continued these explorations in directing his own films, with mixed results. Affliction won an Oscar™ for James Coburn; The Comfort of Strangers was one of the worst films of the last fifteen years. (Other directorial credits include American Gigolo, Blue Collar, and Cat People.) Unquestionably among the successes, Auto Focus is perhaps Schrader's most sophisticated film to date. Instead of hitting the audience over the head with a moral, Schrader relies on subtle ironies and visual devices to convey point of view. For example, the film opens with Crane, working as a morning radio deejay in Los Angeles, interviewing Clayton Moore, better known to television audiences as the Lone Ranger--a masked man, whose true face no one knows, and whose partner, incidentally, is a Native American, just like Carpenter is part Native American. Then, to represent Crane's rapport with the women in his life, there's the oft-repeated punch line from Crane's touring dinner-theater play, Beginner's Luck, from which he earned a living for much of the Seventies. Crane gazes out a window, and in response to a query whether he sees his wife, he exclaims, "I don't know! What does she look like?" Every time Schrader shows us this scene, Crane is playing opposite a different female lead.

With regard to the visual elements, Schrader gradually degrades the quality of the film to mirror the degeneration of Crane's life. "My visual strategy was rather simplistic," says Schrader, "It is just an arc from clean lines to clutter, an arc from stable cinematography to shaky cinematography. An arc from saturated color to de-saturated color. So it's just a whole gradual arc, the world becoming less stable, less predictable."

Certainly no one could have predicted that a biography of a minor, forgettable television star could be such an absorbing, compelling, and even frightening film about compulsive behavior and unhealthy relationships. Perhaps it is because Schrader did not set out to make a film about addiction per se, but rather, a movie about a self-deluded, self-enabling man whose rise and fall were both entirely of his own making.

Review © October 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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