Cult Cinema: Auto Focus

The subversive life of Bob Crane is captured in Auto Focus.

"...awwwww come on! What's wrong
with a little hidden camera porn?"
Self-destructive Hollywood celebrities, for all the drama they brew on and off camera, are curious animals to director Paul Schrader. Although it was a misfire, his last picture The Canyons endeared to be another expose' of sleaze in the entertainment industry. What made The Canyons particularly unacceptable for me, besides being from the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, is that it was from the director of one of my favorite Hollywood celeb biopics of all time, Auto Focus.

Spanning several decades, Auto Focus is at once a biographical treatise of the events leading up to actor Bob Crane's still unsolved murder, a nonjudgmental character study of Crane, and a foray deep into unchecked and destructive celebrity excess.  It's also a shape shifting black comedy with inspired performances by Greg Kinnear as Crane (still his finest hour) and Willem Dafoe as a creepy videographer named John Carpenter, not to be confused with the horror film director of the same name. Carpenter becomes Crane's partner in crime as the two lead each other down a slippery slope of sexual addiction and debauchery.  In short, Auto Focus tells a tale of infidelity, addiction, and the toll it can take on a person both personally and professionally.
Auto Focus begins at the height of Crane's career, painting Crane as a well-to-do family man, happily married with children, doing DJ work and occasional acting for film.  He hit the big time when was given an offer to be the lead in Hogan's Heroes. For those who don't remember it, Hogan's Heroes was a strange sitcom about a band of Americans who constantly outwitted their nazi captors during WWII for big laughs. The show was a hit, and it catapulted Crane to super-stardom.  His success is cut short upon meeting the aforementioned Carpenter as the two dive headlong into excess.
"This is the part where the two
girls bring out the cup!"
Greg Kinnear perfectly embodies the troubled actor with all the charm and smiles Bob Crane used in both his television work and his womanizing. Dafoe is equally strong as Carpenter, who can't seem to live without Crane, becoming emotionally and perhaps physically attached to him.  The film is stylistically told in three arcs, beginning with a sitcom, candy-colored look before gradually growing gritty with handheld camera work. Angelo Badalamenti, who regularly composes for David Lynch, lends a score that opens on a hip, jazzy note before devolving into the dreaded ambient soundscapes he and Lynch are known for creating.

As a narrative, Schrader isn't as focused on trying to answer questions about Crane's addiction as he is interested in watching Crane spiral downward. True to Schrader's previous character studies such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, we're watching a nonjudgmental character study of a deeply flawed human being on his way to oblivion. 
Unlike the aforementioned films, however, Auto Focus has the capacity for being darkly hilarious, particularly during a montage with Crane describing his penchant for the varieties of female breasts. It's a diatribe of pure chauvinism and possible obsessive compulsive psychosis, and Schrader portrays it as exactly that. At the end of the film, after Crane's still unsolved murder, Crane looks back (via voiceover narration) almost fondly at the antics that ultimately led to his death. Was Crane a victim, or was his end inevitable due to his wild behavior?  Auto Focus, much like it's main character, seems less interested in trying to figure the man out than simply smiling and waving as it passes him by.

-Andrew Kotwicki