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Auto Focus

Auto Focus
Sony TriStar
2002 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 107 min. / Street Date March 18,2003 / $26.95
Starring Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello, Rita Wilson, Ron Leibman, Bruce Solomon, Michael E. Rodgers, Kurt Fuller, Christopher Neiman, Lyle Kanouse
Cinematography Fred Murphy
Production Designer James Chinlund
Art Direction Seth Reed
Film Editor Kristina Boden
Original Music Angelo Badalamenti
Written by Michael Gerbosi from the book The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith
Produced by Scott Alexander, Alicia Allain, Pat Dollard, Larry Karaszewski, Trevor Macy, Todd Rosken
Directed by Paul Schrader

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 Republican.

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 literally screwing 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 not to 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 equipment. A 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 of the readily disposable variety.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Auto Focus rates:
Movie: Excellent, but not recommended for all
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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, Making-of featurette
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 17, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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