Auto Focus Reviews
The first thing you kind of have to acknowledge about the man's career is that his most famous role was screwy. He was in a wacky sitcom about a German POW camp. Various characters in this emphasize repeatedly that it wasn't a concentration camp--[i]MAD Magazine[/i] ran a parody in which it was--but it's not as though conditions for prisoners of war in Germany were the best out there. In fact, this may well be the only thing I ever saw the man in, and at the time, I don't think I thought it was any stranger than any other show premise. Then again, I was pretty young when I watched the show. It's now available on Netflix, but I'm not sure I'm interested. Maybe just a single disc, to remember why I thought it was funny when I was seven, but I really don't think I'm interested in five seasons of it. I don't think I'd be able to watch it now without thinking of [i]The Great Escape[/i] and the actual history of the time and place.
Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) was a DJ in Los Angeles who had been trying to make it big in show business for some time. He is married to Anne (Rita Wilson), and she is incredibly supportive. She's moved with him several times, and of course LA is the big time. And then one day, he's offered the lead role in a show with a weird premise. He is also introduced to John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a high-fi enthusiast who works as a salesman for the fledgling video camera industry. He introduces Crane to a wild world of sex, including of course photographing and eventually videotaping his sexual conquests. And Bob has a lot of sex, which destroys his marriage to Anne. He marries Patricia (Maria Bello), stage name Sigrid Valdis, who is willing to let him fool around all he wants to. But when [i]Hogan's Heroes[/i] goes off the air, work rather dries up for Crane. He ends up touring with a dinner theatre, and Patricia divorces him because she never sees him. And then he's murdered.
The case is still technically open; the only suspect was found not guilty in his trial, which happened sixteen years after the fact. Carpenter is dead now--which is probably why he's allowed to be the murderer in this, because you legally can't defame the dead. And while I'm hardly an expert on the case, I'm pretty sure their evidence kind of boiled down to Everybody Knew He Did It. Which, of course, is insufficient. But in very few cases, you're not trying for audience sympathy for a character when you cast Willem Dafoe. Indeed, he and Kinnear are the only thing which kept me from giving this a negative review. Kinnear is pretty good, but Dafoe is great. The implication, though I'm not sure it's completely intended, is that Carpenter is half in love with Crane and half projects his own self-image on him. And no one can do that like Willem Dafoe. I don't think his version of Carpenter is gay; I think he's bi at most. But he also likes to think that a big shot like Bob Crane needs him to get him chicks.
Of course, we and the film both know that Bob Crane wasn't really that much of a big shot, and the tragedy of the story is that Bob Crane didn't. He was riding high as Hogan, but that was only going to last him so long. The problem with being iconic for playing a specific role is that the role isn't going to last forever. Eventually, that show is going to go off the air, and you're going to have to count on the hope that audiences will be willing to see you as someone other than, in this case, Colonel Hogan. Unfortunately, that only occasionally happens, and if I had a hit TV show, I'd save every dime I could to pay for the years where I wasn't working. They will come, and they are probably going to be plentiful. And if you get used to a certain freewheeling, high-spending lifestyle, that's going to hurt you in the long run. And Bob Crane let himself get used to it, and it didn't seem to occur to him that "I used to be Hogan" would draw fewer and fewer women as time passed.
The real Bob Crane's son is unhappy with this movie, and not just because he was shopping his own version of the story around when this got picked up. He says that a fair amount of it is wrong, too. His father didn't meet Carpenter until the show had gone off the air. He had been a sex addict before then. And only went to church about three times in the last dozen years of his life--one of which was his own funeral. I don't know about that, though I do know that I wouldn't want the Bob Carne shown here as my father, either. Though I certainly wouldn't use "he was taping his sexual encounters since the '50s!" as a defense. The Bob Crane described by Scotty Crane is if anything smaller than the one portrayed by Kinnear. At that, the film feels as though it's been padded at least ten minutes by gratuitous sex scenes. Bob Crane's sex life may have led in some way to his death, but probably only because he was sharing it with the wrong person. A lot of people have led similar lives and not died for it.
Painting a rather unapologetic portrait of a man allowed to indulge his excesses, the film is amazingly watchable and well worth a rental at the very least.
Paul Schrader is a man who certainly knows how to capture the darker points of life onscreen. Auto Focus and Affliction, the latter being a personal favorite of mine, are perfect examples of that. Schrader begins by showing us a character that has been a victim of circumstance, and then leads us down a path to despair as they are swallowed by their own sin. In the end, we cannot help but feel pity for them
Though Schrader is indifferent to the lead character, Bob Crane, it is clear that he loathes and holds a deep resentment for the sin that Crane commits. It is exactly that that makes Auto Focus such a good film, not to mention the wonderful performance from Greg Kinnear.
There need to be more directors like Paul Schrader out there. Cinema does have a purpose, but, sadly, it is typically used to entertain audiences with either bad jokes, loud action, or both.
I, for one, feel that cinema is a perfect way to warn the world of the dangers and temptations that lurk beneath the happy exterior, the dangers that lurk like characters in a David Lynch film.
Cinema's number one purpose is for entertainment, yes, and I have no quarrels with that, but take a look at the world we live in. Look at the box office totals between Auto Focus and, say, Transformers.