I’m not a huge fan of Paul Schrader’s work … or maybe it’s his worldview that I’m not exactly in tune with. In either case, Auto Focus represents both what I admire about Schrader’s work, as well as what I don’t. The film is stylish to a fault — in fact, maybe to its own fault. It has something to say and it generally says it well, even if its major point is a little too obscure for its own good.
The problem is the same one I encounter with nearly all of Schrader’s Calvinist-guilt-ridden work — the director neither seems to understand the allure of the “sins” his characters commit, nor does he seem to really care about the characters as people. (The one exception I can think of is Affliction.) It’s funny in a filmmaker with a moralistic bent born of a strict religious background, but just as God is said to “love the sinner, but hate the sin,” Schrader seems more to fixate on the sin and to say to hell with the sinner. As a result, there’s a curious distancing effect at work here — one perhaps never so obvious as in Auto Focus.
It’s the story of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) and his descent into the personal hell of becoming a sexaholic. Crane’s fall was helped along by singularly creepy video tech-head John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who very probably murdered him in 1978. The film could have gone in any number of directions — in particular, it could have been tragic and moving. It isn’t. Too, it could have been a truly kinky wallow in perversity and self-destructive behavior. It’s ultimately too reticent to go that far. Finally, it could have explored just what the relationship between the two men was all about. Yet what it emerges is a story with no real center. Why? Simply because the director doesn’t seem to care about anything other than the events.
Bob Crane may have been the shallowest human being who ever lived, but it’s hard to imagine that could be the case with everyone in the movie; no one seems quite real. Kinnear’s Crane may object to what’s happening to him as his world spirals out of control, but the film suggests it doesn’t seem to bother him very much. It’s a good performance from Kinnear, given the material at hand, but there’s only so much the actor can do with it. Dafoe’s Carpenter is another matter. At least he is able to imbue the ultra-sleazy Carpenter with a genuine sense of desperation, even if the script doesn’t want to clue him — or us — in on just why his relationship with Crane is of such life-and-death importance.
Was Carpenter in love with Crane? Auto Focus suggests so, but keeps backing away from the idea — and it seems to do so primarily to keep from having much emotional resonance. This isn’t entirely Schrader’s fault, since the screenplay by first-timer Michael Gerbosi certainly enters into this. Whether by accident or design, Gerbosi crafted a script that plays like a sitcom and boasts shallow dialogue that wouldn’t be at all out of place in one. Schrader takes this to heart and creates a film that doesn’t so much duplicate the era in which the action takes place, but it duplicates the look of a mid-’60s TV show — at least for the first half of the movie. (Oddly, while they secured the rights to everything else, it appears they couldn’t get permission to use the Hogan’s Heroes title music, and had to settle for a distracting pastiche.)
Once Crane starts his rapid descent (not quite as rapid in reality as depicted in the film), Schrader switches to darker tones and a jittery handheld camera. This is perhaps meant to depict the difference between the professionally crafted TV show and the sleazy home pornos Crane made of himself and Carpenter, and their array of nameless women. The problem with this approach is that Crane and Carpenter were making these tapes at the same time as Crane was making his TV show, so the dichotomy is somewhat forced. It’s certainly clever, but it doesn’t really go beyond that.
The script is also occasionally just too precious in its attempts to score easy laughs on the now-quite-crude cutting-edge technology of the era it depicts. (Seemingly, neither Schrader, nor Gerbosi realize that 25 years from now, our cutting-edge technology may seem just as quaint.) Where the film scores its best points is in its depiction of the basic hypocrisy of much of the 1960s “establishment.”
With Crane, here was a man whose all-consuming hobby is having as many sexual encounters as possible and putting them on tape so he can show them around and brag about them — yet he refuses to go with the flow of the humor of the changing times, objecting to comedians who tell dirty jokes and commenting on the baseness of rock music. Unfortunately, this is so buried in the film’s cornucopia of joyless and utterly unerotic sex that it might well go unnoticed.
In the end, Auto Focus is a well-made, well-acted depiction of events in the life — and in the death — of Bob Crane; and, on that level, it’s worth a look. Occasionally, it even flirts with greatness in its individual sequences, though it misses the boat in its failure to depict Crane as a person.