Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
They used to say that Martin Scorsese made films about people we didn't want to know. Paul Schrader
seemingly keeps remaking Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest - his movies focus mostly on
stories about self-destructive
men with questionable goals, who are blind to their own weaknesses. Auto Focus is one of
his best pictures, an unblinking look at the secret life of a sex addict. Greg Kinnear glows as
the friendly star who just doesn't understand why his 'hobby' is such a problem for other people;
Schrader tells his
slick, unpleasant tale with just enough critical distance to avoid charges of exploitation.
Successful disc jockey and family man Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) becomes a star with
the TV comedy Hogan's Heroes, and the fame brings him opportunities to indulge his darker
side. Abetted by a video technician, John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) eager to hitch up with a girl-bait
celebrity, Crane frequents strip clubs and is soon having sex nightly with pickups he and his new
buddy bring back to Carpenter's pad. Already a collector of sex magazines, Crane buys new portable
videotape equipment, and becomes a sex addict, taping and reviewing his endless orgies. Losing all
perspective, the star with the squeaky-clean image throws away two marriages along with his
career, all the while never understanding what the problem is.
Paul Schrader's movies about tainted sinners are ultimately moralistic, but still leave
us feeling like bathtubs with dirty rings. His consistent choice of stories & characters suggests
that he considers himself in a purgatory called Hollywoood, trying to atone for some sin earlier
in his life.
In Auto Focus, the director finds material perfect to his tastes. Jake LaMotta was like a
beast-man in a classic tragedy, and we cried for him when he trashed the only symbol of his
struggle, his championship belt. Bob Crane's tragedy is more down-to Earth and less dramatic.
Celebrity and wealth combine to free a straight-laced family man's proclivities for unrestrained
sex. Most middle-class adulterers are quickly curbed by all kinds of limits - financial,
emotional, etc. With
the money and the sex attraction afforded by his role in a lame network comedy, Crane went
with the flow and found he liked it - by night a jackrabbit playboy, by day a church-going
Crane's post-murder (1978) unveiling as a secret sexaholic revealed deep contradictions that
Auto Focus, to its credit, manages to retain as the center of its story. Crane sees no
conflict between his 'healthy interest' in women, and his love of his wife and family. Repeatedly
finding his sex magazines, and finally his secret stash of orgy photos, Crane's wife Anne (Rita
Wilson) doesn't share his notions of honesty. His only real friend, and then only because of their
shared interests, is the leechlike hanger-on John Carpenter, a video and stereo technician to the
stars who loves Crane's ability to attract unlimited numbers of attractive women.
The first part of Auto Focus is like a living version of one of those old Cad -type men's
magazines, the ones read by Marty's hard-up bachelor friends. Crane at first protests that
he's a married man, but finds he has no internal barriers to a wild life of unrestrained sex.
Considering the Hollywood babes at his disposal, who could resist? Crane
and Carpenter don't concern themselves with the hedonistic selfishness of it all - using other people,
remembering their partner's names just long enough to greet them at the door.
Even the most modest celebrities often fall victim to an egocentric blindness to the rest of the world,
losing perspective on their position, and how their actions are perceived by others. Crane went
way off the deep end, hiding his escalating video orgies so poorly, he must think his wife and
friends are fools. He's surprised to find that being caught with boxes of scummy sex magazines is
considered questionable, and scoffs at this agent Lenny (Ron Liebman)'s sincere concern that he's
up his career. Moving into the post - Hogan's 70s, we see Crane and Carpenter taking their
parties on the road with Crane's little theater act, and the intially impressive sex partners
degenerate into whoever can be induced to remember his celebrity.
Finally they're scoring on the 'swinging singles' circuit, with partners so plain, the sex
itself has to be the only draw. Strung out and middle aged, the pair are so sex obsessed, they
masturbate in front of one another without even thinking about it;
Crane blows an already pitiful cooking show gig by sexually harassing an audience member - on
camera. A chance at a comeback in Disney movies is short-circuted by his private life, but
he still has no perspective, no inkling of anything wrong with his behavior - it's all
self-indulgence on the part of a guy to whom nobody ever said No. "What's the matter? People
always liked me. That's what I am."
Schrader deals with the murder finale very nicely, leaning toward the main suspect (the case was
never solved) but keeping things somewhat ambiguous. Crane has a last-night talk about needing to
straighten out and leave 'the life' behind, but that might have been the way he talked for years.
It's a good and honest movie, but will still be harsh and unpleasant to many viewers, and offensive
to those pre-opposed to its content. Crane and Carpenter aren't judged outright, but it's the little
attitudinal details that condemn them. They don't merely love sex, they get their giggles from
being randy rakes who can knock down their conquests like tenpins, all the time marvelling at
how stupid the women are. When things go bad for their sex games, their essential hatred is
expressed more directly.
Willem Dafoe's lowlife techie may have been an easy role to play, but Auto Focus takes care
give him undue blame for what was really a partnership. It's a good portrait of the show-biz fringe
dweller who marks his success by the celebrities he hangs out with (Bob Crane? Richard Dawson? not
very high of an aim) while otherwise suffering constant petty humiliations. Theirs is more of a
marriage than Crane had with his wives - they do more living and 'sharing' together. When Crane
belittles him, Carpenter's inner rage makes perfect sense.
The creepiest thing about Auto Focus is how it focuses the Playboy fantasy of available
playmates with consumer affluence, in particular, fancy stereos and the then-new videotape
college buddy of mine once had a weird part-time job in the Playboy Mansion, carefully recording
Hugh Hefner's favorite films with an unwieldy reel-to reel VTR. He saw no evidence of Hefner using
the equipment for anything else, and concluded that although Hef may have had a lot of girlfriends,
he kept his life in reasonable balance.
There's so much nudity in Auto Focus, that almost the whole picture is a 'sexual situation.'
Schrader's chosen sicko this time doesn't smoke or drink to excess. Much of America will quickly
decide that the show is straight exploitation, simply based on its plot description. I didn't think
it was sleaze, but I'm not sure it was particularly enlightening either, except to what was
once called prurient interest.
Sony's slick DVD of Auto Focus presents its colorful photography and smooth lounge score by
Angelo Badalmenti in an attractive package, starting with the arresting title sequence.
The main extra is a serious docu on the real Bob Crane murder case that goes into great detail with
the crime and the mishandling of the case for decades thereafter. Actual police files and courtroom
videotape are used - how did anybody get clearance for all this? - and family members, policemen,
prosecutors and defense lawyers are all on camera with pungent opinions. It provides a perfect
companion to the film, by showing the miserable legacy an unsolved murder can leave.
The disc is packed with more material, especially a record number of commentaries for a film with
such a disappointing boxoffice run (see below). Savant only sampled them; with 6 additional hours of
audio content, viewer curiosity will hopefully be satisfied. The five deleted scenes are the
readily disposable kind.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Auto Focus rates:
Movie: Excellent, but not recommended for all
Supplements: Two part docu on the Bob Crane murder scandal, Commentary by Greg
Kinnear and Willem Dafoe, Commentary by Paul Schrader, Commentary by producers Scott
Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and Writer Michael Gerbosi, trailers, deleted scenes,
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 17, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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