The movies have always been squeamish when it comes to male
sexuality. Thereís something dark there, something a little
too disquieting that scares people off. It may have to do
with the fact that testosterone is responsible for both sex
drive and rage. This connection is unsettling when you think
of the two separately, but itís even worse when you think
of them as two branches of the same tree. The polarity between
the two is striking (sex=the perseverance of the human race;
rage=the downfall of man), and yet, there they are, side by
side, implying each other and highlighting the perception
that sex is the tool used in a self-imposed ruin.
This idea seems to be the driving force behind Auto Focus,
Paul Schraderís new film about the rise and fall of
the star of TVís ďHoganís Heroes,Ē Bob Crane. As the
film starts, Crane is the star of his own radio show for LA
station KNX. After meeting with his agent Lenny (Leibman,
Rachelís father on ďFriendsĒ), Crane decides, after a bit
of reluctance, to take the lead role in a sitcom set in a
World War II POW camp. After ďHoganís HeroesĒ premieres, he
is shot to stardom. And so begins the downfall.
At home, his wife, Anne (Wilson) has begun to come
across porn magazines in the garage, making her question her
husbandís commitment to her. Crane tries to blow it off, telling
her that they mean nothing and that heíll get rid of them.
Rita Wilson has never really had a role to allow her to show
much talent, but here, sheís great, subtly waiting for her
world to crash down around her. You can see in her eyes the
acknowledgement that the perfect marriage she thought she
had is only an illusion and the expectation of worse things
in the future than magazines.
Those worse things end up coming courtesy of John Carpenter
(not the John Carpenter of Halloween, but wouldnít
that have been interesting?), an audiovisual technician
Crane meets on the ďHoganísĒ backlot. Willem Dafoe plays
Carpenter as weaselly and needy at the same time, a combination
that proves to get creepier as the film progresses. The two
visit a strip club that night, and a few nights later, they
take two strippers back to Carpenterís place, thus beginning
a friendship based on the joys of meaningless sex and the
thrill of voyeuristic perversity (they film their sexual exploits,
sometimes without the women knowing, to document their accomplishments).
Itís in these transitional scenes that Greg Kinnear
is amazing as Crane. In the beginning of the film, Crane is
a dismally square family man with a goofy grin and an even
goofier sense of humor. But as he finds freedom in perversity,
his entire being changes. The first time a woman comes onto
him, at a ďHoganísĒ party for CBS, thereís this barely noticeable
gleam that flits through Kinnearís eyes. Partly flattered,
and partly lascivious, itís gone before you ever really knew
it was there. And thatís where the brilliance of Kinnearís
performance lies: in those unguarded moments where he is unable
to hide whatís going on in that head but he tries to anyway.
Even later in the film, after Crane has fully embraced his
lecherous side, he keeps telling people that there is nothing
wrong with the lifestyle he leads, but itís so obvious that
heís trying to convince himself of this. If he can justify
his compulsions, then he can be proud of them, and then no
one can touch him. Kinnear perfectly balances these two sides
of Bob Crane, the Bob desperately trying to hide his seedy
interests, and the Bob desperately trying to rationalize them.
He makes the movie. I hate that phrase ďOscar-worthy performance,Ē
but if the shoe fitsÖ
Complementing Kinnearís performance is the terrific cinematography
of Gordon Avil and William Jurgensen. They use
handheld cameras to their most intimate potential, and as
Crane becomes more washed-up, the film becomes more washed-out.
Itís subtle, itís affecting, and itís a brilliant instance
of the medium using itself to get its point across.
But while Auto Focus is in itself a near-masterpiece,
thereís the question of whether or not the filmmakers are
being honest about Bob Crane. One of his sons (Scotty) insists
that much of the story is fabricated, that poetic license
was taken in an irresponsible manner. That may be true, but
with autobiographies, there are always fabrications in order
to make the story more interesting. Now if that were the only
issue here, it wouldnít be a problem. The problem, though,
lies in the way Bob Crane is used in the film as a symbol
for what the evils of pleasure can do. At the time of his
death, Craneís career was actually on an upswing, with some
promising work ahead of him and the possibility of rebuilding
his relationship with his estranged son. But Auto Focus
portrays Crane in his final days to be a slovenly wreck, cutting
off ties with people and generally disappearing into his own
private hell. Ultimately, itís maddening how didactic Auto
Focus ends up being about how you should live your life.
Throughout the film, it avers to care about Crane, but finally
it seems to just disapprove of him, exploiting his tragedy
for the sake of moralizing. And that in itself is a tragedy.
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