movie review by
David Gurevich


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Auto Focus

There are few modern American directors who are as obsessed with sin as Paul Schrader (Hardcore and Comfort of Strangers). Sometimes it works, as in Taxi Driver, which he scripted. But sometimes Mr. Schrader gets so obsessed that he forgets that the sheer strength of moral convictions doth not a film make. You need a few other things: a well-paced plot and a convincing main character, for example.

Why would anyone bother to make Auto Focus, a film about a character as marginal as Bob Crane, the star of Hogan's Heroes, a sitcom set in a POW camp? For one thing, it is Zeitgeist, with Rosie and Oprah gracing our magazine stands; nowadays, Mr. Crane, with his inexhaustible talent for self-promotion, would get away with a lot more than a few dirty pictures. But Mr. Schrader is not a victim of celebritosis; once again, he is out to explore sin that is the core of our pop culture.

Who was Bob Crane? A fast-talking DJ, a bit sitcom player, who lucked out to snatch a lead in a hit series. The new gospel bound to be reinforced by Mr. Schrader's film is that he was undone by his sex addiction. Oy. Like we haven't had it up to here with minor Hollywood characters undone by alcohol and drugs (off the top of my head: Pictures from the Edge and Permanent Midnight, respectively -- surely you can add to the list). Now, according to this film, if a two-bit showbiz personality falls from grace, sex is to blame. Considering the part sex plays in our culture, Mr. Schrader has his work cut out for him.

The straightforward plot follows Crane from a happy husband in his DJ years to his seduction by the Hogan's Heroes fame and eventual fall amid post-Hogan's Heroes debauchery. Schrader and his team - including cameraman Fred Murphy, designer James Chinlund, and composer Angelo Badalamenti - outdid themselves in recreating the progress of America from square early '60s to psychedelic late '60s to disco '70s. A lot of effort went into recreating the sets, the clothes, the cars; I dare anyone to find a single shirt (and Kinnear wears a lot of them, from knits to polyester) out of its time frame.

So a DJ gets a script. So a script turns into a hit. So one night Crane, a perfect husband, is seduced by John Carpenter, a fast-talking electronics nerd with desperate puppy eyes (Willem Dafoe, believe it or not), into going to a strip joint and later on to a nerd's apartment, where Crane is pinned to the wall and - in modern terms -- date-raped (the girl is a stripper, but that doesn't count in the post-Camilla Paglia world). If his middle-class morals crumble at the first set of size Ds rammed into his chest, there wasn't much there to begin with, no? Before the seduction, Mr. Crane sublimated his wolfish impulses by playing drums -- and immediately prior to the seduction, he gets invited by a bandleader ("Give a hand to Hogan himself") to sit in at a jam session. In Mr. Schrader's world, is percussion sort of a "gateway sin" to sex obsession?

We the laity, untutored in sin's complexities, we thought sin was, well, fun -- hasn't this always been the main attraction? As the film goes on, Carpenter sets up one "orgy" after another with Crane as the main attraction -- but each orgy is deliberately made to look so dull as to send the viewer to the Weather Channel. With the cleverness that belongs on the blackboard of a seminary class on psychology, Schrader depicts Crane having fun only when he watches himself on the screen. Even Dafoe's character doesn't look like much of a Mephistopheles -- not when every step in the immersion into sin is signaled by a new video recording gadget that presumably would make the taping easier and allow better quality. I never thought I would see the day when a stack of Radio Shack catalogs would be used as a map to Hell.

I don't mean to sound flippant, but what's more important -- the right shirts/cars/video gadgets - or people? Because we really don't see the wages of seduction outside the dank, dark den where Carpenter weaves his web for starry-eyed, big-breasted Hogan fans. OK, so there is an inevitable family breakup -- well, that happens every day for reasons far more innocuous; there is a new wife willing to put up with Crane's obsessions -- or so she says; but, outside the TV series, the triumphs of Crane's life are so miniscule that we really don't get the sense of the costs of his addiction. He was a nothing and he came to nothing, having his head smashed in a dinky motel in Arizona; and, sure enough, who else is to blame but our shallow pop culture that has cranked out a dozen Cranes since I turned on my computer, only to spit out as many by the time I'm done? And of course Crane was also a victim of the Hugh Hefner myth of carefree sex. But then what about our obsession with gadgetry that is given such prominence in Crane's downfall? Shouldn't Sony join Playboy as a co-defendant?

Now, if Schrader wanted to lift Crane from a pathetic loser, a fame junkie who got lucky once and sank back to obscurity, he would have picked a different actor and given him the Moment when he realizes What It's All About. But Schrader's approach -- for better or for worse -- is to keep Crane in his place. For that, Greg Kinnear is probably a smart choice. Mr. Kinnear gained fame at Talk Soup, a show that specialized in outtakes from talk shows, and he was perfect: non-threatening good looks with quick eyebrows and a perpetual wink. This was the kind of parody that a parodee cannot get enough of. From there, he leapfrogged Crane with a comedy series and went straight to the big screen, all without losing a wink. In physical terms, his depiction of Crane is right on; unfortunately, copying a surface isn't good enough for a serious film that Auto Focus claims to be, and, if we go one level deeper, we discover (sorry, Gertrude) that there is no there there.

In a sense, Auto Focus qualifies as a buddy picture, and Schrader didn't have to go one step further and suggest that Carpenter had a homoerotic crush on Crane. In this way, he tips us off to the killer's identity in an uncomfortably heavy-handed way. At one time, we all dropped or have been dropped by our poker/fishing/football-watching buddies, but we lived through that, didn't we? But love, well…wouldn't a gay man spurned have the fury to grab a hammer and splatter the brains of the object of his desire on the wall? The murder scene is done very much a la John Carpenter (the director), accompanied by properly solemn music and followed by Kinnear's voiceover. Sounding as chatty as he did on Talk Soup, Greg (you don't mind, Greg, do ya?) outlines what happened after: the bungled-up investigation, the release of Carpenter… no surprises there.

If this film succeeds in the box office (Schrader's films seldom do), we'll have yet another trend: tragic lives of itsy-bitsy performers. A Hollywood biopic happens twice: first as a serious moral quest, as in Crane's case; second, as a slam-bang walk on the wild side -- Robert Blake, anyone? Funny, but I'd rather watch a slam-bang. Crane would, too.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]