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Fuzzy Picture

 

Auto Focus

Paul Schrader, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.3

 

 

Posted: November 2, 2002

By Laurence Station

Bob Crane, an ex-radio DJ turned TV star (thanks to playing the lead role in Hogan's Heroes during a six-year run beginning in the mid-'60s), was a disarmingly likable small screen personality; a natural-born charmer who, from the outside looking in, appeared to be a model citizen (wife, three kids, home in the suburbs). With success, however, -- and, more importantly, the greater exposure that came with celebrity -- Crane broke free of his church-going, straight-laced activities and took a serious walk on the wild side. His addiction to sex, and the subsequent video recording of such acts, cost him two marriages and his career. In the end it also most likely lead to his murder -- one that remains unsolved to this day. Paul Schrader's exploration of and fascination with the male ego seems custom fit for a film about Crane's bizarre life and violent death. That Schrader elects to focus almost exclusively on the voyeuristic reality of the ill-fated entertainer's past, rather than attempt figure out what made him tick, proves a serious flaw in an otherwise interesting and smartly executed biopic.

Schrader, who carries the distinction of having penned two of Martin Scorsese's finest films (Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), tackles Crane's sordid story with undeniable gusto, managing to evoke what it must have been like for people with conservative '50s values confronting the burgeoning sexual revolution of the swinging '60s. Greg Kinnear does a convincing job as the doomed star, deftly revealing a man vapidly oblivious to the harm he caused himself and others. Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, effectively inhabits the role of John Carpenter a video technician and Crane's needy hanger-on. The post-'50s-to-late-'70s-period look is handsomely captured -- though the heavy-handed use of crisp, steady photography of Crane's family man years, gradually moving to fast cuts and urgent zoom-ins for his seamier later days, distracts more than illuminates.

The main problem stems from the fact that Schrader -- who's enjoyed a less than stellar career as a director (Light Sleeper, Affliction) -- never gets deep enough beneath the surface of Crane, or the allure of the sleazy swingers' world he inhabits, to reveal what triggered his transformation from clean-cut citizen to lounge lizard, or to examine why he couldn't seem to free himself from his self-destructive hormonal urges. Crane may well have been a cipher, but Schrader's examination of the star's life simply shows the end result of the actor's urges, as opposed to concentrating on some key background moments that might have pushed him toward what can best be described as the sleazier side of the Playboy After Dark world. The cracks in Crane's first marriage are trivialized; wife Ann (Rita Wilson) finds skin mags in the garage and complains that Crane doesn't spend enough time with her. Second wife Patricia (Maria Bello) gives Crane free reign to indulge his sex fantasies, promising him "we can have any marriage we like." After giving birth to their son, however, suddenly she can't understand why Crane won't grow up and settle down, failing to realize that he was obviously rebelling, in textbook "middle aged crazy" fashion, against fifteen-odd years of a traditional marriage and white picket fence family life.

Regrettably, Schrader leaves the wives with very little to do but carp and throw things at Crane. Instead, the film's main focus is on the relationship between Crane and Carpenter -- with the almost requisite homoerotic tension tossed in, thanks to multiple sexual encounters in which the two men participate -- and the pathetic shallowness of their lives. Crane and Carpenter are, in the end, left with only one another, a whole lot of video tape and little else. When Crane decides to break away from Carpenter, Auto Focus moves to its obvious conclusion, basically convicting Carpenter of the 1978 bludgeoning death of his friend. That Schrader has Crane narrate over the bloody crime scene (as a general rule -- Sunset Boulevard, excluded -- post-mortem voiceovers rarely work, as American Beauty and now Auto Focus stridently make clear) and then sum up his rudely truncated, empty life with an overly simplistic "boys will be boys," "didn't we have a lot of fun, though" assessment, proves an insult to the real Crane, no matter how perverse or misguided he may have been.

Schrader frames a tangentially impressive picture of Crane, but in the end it's as two dimensional as the character of Hogan. Which is a real shame, given the director's formidable screenwriting talent and genuine interest in the often-contradictory elements that define modern day masculinity. In his hands, Auto Focus tells but doesn't show; it's a string of symptoms in search of a cause.

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