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In 1965, Bob Crane, who had achieved some earlier success as a television supporting actor, was working as a successful morning radio DJ at KNX Los Angeles. Despite enjoying his work, photography (especially of the female form) and drumming, Crane wanted to be a movie star. So it was with some reluctance that he accepted the title starring role in a new television sitcom called Hogan's Heroes (1965), a WWII POW comedy. To his surprise, the show became a hit and catapulted him to television stardom. The fame resulting from the show led to excesses and a meeting with home video salesman and technician John Carpenter, with who he would form a friendship based on their mutual interests, namely excessive sex (for Crane, purely heterosexual sex) and capturing nude females on celluloid. His fame allowed Crane to have as much sex as he wanted, which was incongruent to his somewhat wholesome television friendly image, and the way he portrayed himself to almost everyone except Carpenter and his... Written by
it's kind of like a drug movie- actually, it really is, and an absorbing one
After a while, I really did get more of what director Paul Schrader was aiming for with Auto Focus, the tale of males caught in some sort of odd damnation of both free will and morality. It's more like a drug movie, only here the drug being the opposite sex, and almost a singularly male ego-trip, instead of common narcotics. But it's also a very fine character study where the idea of character is taken into consideration, of how much one can seem a certain way, but then be stuck in with flaws and insecurities and, ultimately, temptation. The last of which is what Schrader puts into focus early on, but then after a while when temptation is gone, the film becomes a direct plunge into complete debauchery. And appropriately, like with all addicts, for a while nothing seems wrong at all about all of this.
Greg Kinnear is definitely in one of his best parts here, as he plays someone who is an actor who keeps his actor-like charms off the set as well. In Hollywood, away from the confines of Connecticut, his Bob Crane lands the lead on Hogan's heroes, but can't resist the first temptations of the night-life. This comes, in an introductory way and then throughout as a tag-along/counterpart, with John Carpenter (not the director, played with the best match by Willem Dafoe of being a creep and alluring at times), who shows him the ropes and hooks him up with video equipment. But as Crane goes deeper into his sexual drives, divorces, marries again and divorces again, his acting career and his livelihood seem to slip away. The themes of being perversely the 'All-American Male' are accentuated by Kinnear's Crane in voice-over as he talks about the unbridled joys of sex, and in an interview with a Christian publication he says 'I don't...make waves'. By the last third of his story, however, into the rot of the 70s, he's lost touch with the reality of his pleasures- or rather necessities.
Auto Focus isn't at times an easy movie to sit through; it's even cringe-worthy in a couple of scenes (notably for me was when he guest stars on a celebrity cooking show, only to keep on his sexually-driven side with audience members). Then there are other scenes (i.e. 'you have fingers up you-know-where', and the genital enhancement) where male masculinity is questioned, and in very peculiar ways between Crane and Carpenter; Crane is homophobic, but then what exactly is Carpenter's function? More than anything, less than being a friend, he becomes a kind of unintentional pusher, where the draw of going out on the town becomes a crux for both of the men. What's just as fascinating then is how Schrader aligns this with his style- the first half is mostly very slick and professional-looking, almost like an HBO bio-pic or something. But then as the characters lose a grip on everything except themselves, there's a hand-held, distorted view to everything. There's lots of nudity and on-screen sex (some blurred out, likely by MPAA request), yet Schrader gets something more shocking, in the mind at least, as Carpenter almost becomes the antagonist in a way as the story winds down (the last phone call marks this most).
Auto Focus has the ideal of the usual biographical drama of a somebody in Hollywood who soon loses himself to becoming a nobody, but there's plenty under the surface that makes it more intriguing. Crane's two sides to his persona- the celebrity one, and the personal 'lifestyle' one- become one and the same after a while, Kinnear being able to make such a near-irredeemable person somewhat sympathetic (or at the least very watchable). And Carpenter's more truthful, emotional, and scary turn is made palatable by Dafoe's equally nuanced performance. It's not great, but it's a near-classic of the tale-of-such-and-such-star when so many don't take in what's deeper into account. A-
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