October 4, 2002 | With all the cool detachment
of a research scientist preparing a monograph for his peers, Paul Schrader
takes a rigorously nonjudgmental view at the untidy life and violent
death of sitcom star Bob Crane in Auto Focus. Chalk it up as
examination of obsession and temptation from the director of Affliction,
Hard Core and American Gigolo. But don't count it among Schrader's
very best works.
people remember Bob Crane as the blandly genial star of Hogan's Heroes,
an improbably successful 1965-71 sitcom about mischievous Allied troops
in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. (Any resemblance to Billy Wilder's Stalag
17 was wholly intentional.) After the series was cancelled, Crane
appeared in a few forgettable movies, attempted a comeback in a short-lived
sitcom titled The Bob Crane Show -- which Auto Focus, perhaps
for reasons of brevity, chooses to ignore -- and sustained his fading
celebrity by extensively touring the dinner theater circuit in a fluffy
three-act comedy. He was performing in Scottsdale, Ariz., when, on June
29, 1978, he was found bludgeoned to death in his hotel room.
ago, I actually saw Crane in Beginner's Luck, his custom-made
star vehicle. And I must give Schrader full credit: He nails every garish
detail of a typical '70s dinner theater production. Come to think of
it, he's also on the mark when he gives us glimpses of the Hogan's
the aftermath of Crane's murder, a darker, tawdrier side of Mr. Nice
Guy gradually emerged. Reports revealed that Crane had been an insatiable
sex addict who frequented strip clubs, organized orgies with groupies
and prostitutes, and took unseemly delight in photographing - and, after
the advent of consumer video technology, taping - his lascivious misadventures.
Auto Focus goes a few steps further by suggesting - well, actually,
by virtually screaming - that Crane likely enjoyed photographic records
of his trysts more than the trysts themselves. In this pursuit of pleasure,
he was greatly assisted by video technician John Carpenter, a would-be
hipster and smooth-talking sycophant who eventually was accused - but
cleared - of killing Crane.
Dafoe plays Carpenter in Auto Focus with an effective mix of
Mephistophelean sleaze and wounded desperation. He's surprisingly poignant
as a pathetic parasite who brings out the worst in a very willing host.
(There's also a none-too-subtle homoerotic undercurrent to the Carpenter's
fixation on Crane, which Dafoe wisely underplays.) In sharp contrast,
however, Greg Kinnear never really gets beneath the affable surface
of Bob Crane. His is a shallow performance of a shallow character, technically
proficient but rarely compelling, largely because Schrader and screenwriter
Michael Gerbosi (working from Robert Graysmith's book The Murder
of Bob Crane) provide Kinnear with precious few depths to plumb.
first half of the movie, set mostly in the mid '60s, is brightly lit
and ring-a-ding frisky, as Schrader depicts Crane as a fatuous lightweight
whose career trajectory -- from drive-time disc jockey to sitcom superstar
- appears to be the result of fluky good luck more than anything else.
But as Crane begins to flounder, professionally and personally, much
to the dismay of his loving wives (first Rita Wilson, then Maria Bello)
and fatherly agent (Ron Leibman), the movie turns darker - quite literally,
with bleached colors and steadily increasing shadows -- and heavier.
And much, much slower.
the end, however, Auto Focus comes off as more of a clinical
study than a cautionary tale or an affecting tragedy. It's hard to shake
the impression that, while Schrader may be fascinated by what Crane
represents, he's not terribly interested in who Crane was.