Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:01 pm 
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Portrait of a sleazebag

'Auto Focus' is Paul Schrader's version of the rise and fall of Bob Crane, the star of the WW II prisoner of war comedy 'Hogan's Heroes.' 'Hogan' ran successfully from 1964 to 1971, with endless reruns since, and as it ran and went into reruns Crane slid progressively downhill in the relentless pursuit of a sex addiction that wrecked his career and prematurely ended his life. Greg Kinnear gamely attacks the lead role in Paul Schrader's Hollywood biopic of this horrendously unfortunate man.

Crane as we see him here is constantly urged on by his sidekick, John Carpenter, a role performed with his usual satanic relish by Willem Dafoe. Unfortunately Dafoe looks a little old to be playing a sex maniac.

Carpenter is a pioneering agent for video equipment who's fired when color video arrives and his boss discovers he's color blind. From then on the rather humiliating role of Dafoe's character becomes nothing but to set up orgies in which he and Crane star -- and to shoot pornographic videos of the proceedings to be viewed later.

It's something new to see Kinnear playing such a distasteful role, if all too familiar to see Dafoe in one. The relationship is a mutually exploitive marriage of addict and enabler. Crane's fame and his charm (considerable in Kinnear's performance) make it all possible, allowing him to smooth the path to his own downfall. As represented by Mr. Schrader and his writers, Robert Graysmith and Michael Gerbosi, Crane has little behind his ingratiating manner but a mindless lust for sex. His self-doubt consists of nothing more than an occasional fear of being caught.

Bob is a Catholic and a family man but he easily slides into the relentless and daily pursuit of his slimy "hobby," first playing drums in strip bars while still working in 'Hogan's Heroes' and partying with the staff afterward, later engaging in the endless orgies on tour which Dafoe's character arranges. Crane's sex obsession spills over into Polaroids and videos of every orgy and to watching them and masturbating with his sidekick while trying to recall the scene. 'Was that Cleveland?' 'No, it was Scottsdale.' Such dialogue might have been funny, but it's only pathetic here.

Crane's first marriage ends - and we see this grimly depicted. The second marriage, with the female lead on 'Hogan,' takes longer to self-destruct because this time the wife begins knowing about all the girls and claiming to accept them. Eventually as depicted here she becomes disaffected and alcoholic.

Never has Paul Schrader been in a more relentless mood. The only queasy element of interest in this slow descent is the growing irony of Crane's persistent charm. 'I'm normal,' he repeatedly says, whenever it's pointed out, also repeatedly, how creepy he's become. It's obvious (Schrader doesn't overstress this, but neither does he develop it in any depth) that Dafoe's character is sexually attracted to Crane and emotionally dependent on him and that this is one sick, devouring relationship.

Word gets around about Bob's grungy lifestyle and his reputation sinks to zero in Hollywood. He and his agent agree he has to start over, so he tells Carpenter their relationship has to end, along with the dinner theater tours that have facilitated the orgies.

Carpenter responds by bashing Bob's head in. (In real life he was acquitted of murder charges, but the movie doesn't buy that.) This finale happens in Scottsdale, Arizona. End of story. It's curiously like the death of Joe Orton, and makes the two men's relationship seem emotionally, if not physically, homosexual.

Mostly Kinnear's able performance - which might well have been troubling and moving in a subtler, more rounded movie - consists of showing Crane pretending to be cheerful and amiable when we know his life is going down the tubes. Kinnear's Crane tirelessly puts on the standard good guy celebrity front. He's the kind of star who never refuses an autograph, never loses his chipper urge to charm. It's only in the last quarter of the movie that Kinnear is called upon to show Crane's physical and mental decline visibly happening on screen. During this period Carpenter (Dafoe) becomes increasingly frantic, knowing he's about to be deprived of his reason for being. Instead of a subtle and haunting alteration of relationship, like that of James Fox and Dick Bogarde in Losey and Pinter's 'The Servant,' the dialogue in 'Auto Focus' just repeats the same formulas.

Schrader doesn't trust Kinnear or Dafoe to convey the progression through acting. Instead, he makes the movie become crudely expressionistic, switching to jerky hand-held cameras and changing the movie's whole style in a grotesquely intrusive way. Angelo Badalamenti's music, which had seemed merely odd and out of sync at times, now becomes heavy-handedly ominous. Badalamenti's compositions seem campy and stylized when they accompany David Lynch's bizarre sequences, but here they're just gratingly portentous. We realize this grim morality play has nowhere to go. Bob was doomed from the start.

Early on, when Bob has just begun playing drums in strip bars, he schedules a meeting with his priest in a coffee shop and tells the good father what he's been doing. 'Would you be more comfortable talking about this in the confessional?' the priest asks. 'No,' Bob answers. Presumably Schrader would like to take us to the confessional, but he can't. He sees no evidence of contrition in Crane's behavior -- and his tale is empty in consequence. Its depiction of a lost soul is without the appeal of a truly Faustian bargain. Bob's just an addict who never recovers, and his 'bottom,' in 12-step terms, is getting his head bashed in, which doesn't allow for Recovery. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has declared this movie 'shallow' and 'morally offensive.' Reports indicate that the film contains some important distortions of the truth about Bob Crane and of his relationship with John Carpenter. If Schrader is a moralist, he's a failure, and as an artist and a historian he has failed as well.

November 10, 2002

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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