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A series of enabling devices


Paul Schrader sits neatly in his armchair in the Four Seasons restaurant. Sometimes, he leans forward to emphasize a point or to laugh, but mostly, he sits quietly, not a lot of wasted motion. Well known and respected for writing several of Martin Scorsese’s greatest films, including Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Schrader is a nervy, reputable director in his own right, with films ranging from Hardcore (1979) and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, co-written with his brother Leonard), to Patty Hearst (1988), Light Sleeper (1992), and the superb Affliction (1997).


While all these films track characters in throes of trauma, depression, and/or self-destruction, all take offbeat attitudes toward these difficulties. The 56-year-old Schrader is a notorious Calvinist and Grand Rapids native whose struggles with his own background certainly inform his art. And while Auto Focus is as dire as any of his other films, he laughs often when discussing his new film, Auto Focus, is as dire as any of his others, he laughs often when discussing it.


The movie is based on the life of Bob Crane (played here by Greg Kinnear), the star of Hogan’s Heroes (airing on CBS, 1965 to 1971), found murdered in his Scottsdale, Arizona condo in 1978, bludgeoned with one of the tripods he used to make home sex tapes. Schrader’s film is less concerned with the star’s career (Schrader says of Hogan’s Heroes, “God, it was an awful show!”) or domestic life (Crane was married twice, first to high school sweetheart Anne [Rita Wilson], then to Hogan’s costar Patricia Olson [Maria Bello]), than with his “secret” obsessions with pornography and sex.


Eventually, Crane, who refused to see his behavior as obsessive or immoral (sex being “natural”), boasted of having had sex with thousands of women, many of whom he taped or photographed. Most often, he engaged in these activities with his friend and partner, John Carpenter (played in the film by Willem Dafoe), a Sony employee and video technology buff who, not incidentally, provided the equipment with which they documented their adventures.



PopMatters:

Given the difficulties of translating someone’s life to film, how did you decide on the structure for the film?



Paul Schrader:

It covers about 14 years of Bob Crane’s life, and we got the idea in pre-production, of the accretion of clutter, that his life becomes more and more messy. So, we devised a scheme to [show] that, involving camerawork, the developing process, the sets, the wardrobe, and the props. By the time you’re at the end of the film, you’re watching a rather different film than you were watching at the beginning. And it’s not the most brilliant idea, but the trick of it is, is to do it in such an incremental fashion that the viewer can’t really say, “Oh, it just changed.” At some point, the viewer says, “This is different.” That was the effect we were going for.



PM:

And how does the voiceover work toward that end?



PS:

Voiceover is doubly useful in biography because it allows you to jump expositionally, through periods of time. Because a human life is not necessarily dramatic, or is almost never dramatic. So you let him stitch it together, and use narration to get through periods and events. Also, it gives you an opportunity to hear Bob’s voice, to identify with him as he sees himself, in his own mind, which is always nice.



PM:

He offers an apposite occasion for working out such a dicey identification process, because he’s simultaneously self-aware and colossally ignorant.



PS:

Fucking clueless.



PM:

The voiceover helps to convey that lack of understanding, and the fact he never learns anything from his experiences.



PS:

You know, in the last narration—when he’s dead—someone wanted me to put some perspective in there. And I said no: just because he’s dead, he didn’t get any more insight. He still doesn’t get it. And surely, the audience can find it without me giving it to them. Audiences are given too much stuff in movies.



PM:

Crane is set against a shorthand historical background that indicates how and why he might have emerged, a context, like the tv images of John Mitchell, another “clueless” and miserable figure.



PS:

Actually, you sort of mark time periods through music, big band, jazz, rock, psychedelic, disco. That’s how people tend to remember time anyway. You hear a record and think, “Oh, that’s 1964.” Bob was a big band fanatic, and he really came from that era, and jazz too. So that was one of the markers, and the clothes, and the period slang, which all came back to me. I even wrote my first big band song. I wrote the title song… you know, snap… snap… [snapping fingers]. I did the lyrics and Angelo [Badalamenti] did the music. And Buster Poindexter/David Johanssen sang it. It was fun.



PM:

The video technology is another time marker.



PS:

[Laughs]. Yeah, just about every scene, Carpenter walks in with some new gadget: “Hey, look at this! The tape is in the cassette!” It’s interesting, that’s sort of the birth of home porn, with Polaroid and then VTRs [video tape recorders]. And now of course, it’s blossomed into a mega-industry, and the web is full of home porn. Like, “Watch me and my wife fuck.” No, thank you. And certainly, Crane today would not be considered as far out of the mainstream as he was then. It was one of a series of enabling devices. And it is what it is.



PM:

It also allows him to see himself in a vivid way.



PS:

Yeah, the idea of the photo becoming an object of his own erotic desire was a very interesting one.



PM:

And the movie is so much about looking at sex, with no sex in it to look at.



PS:

We’re not allowed to.



PM:

Bob and John are both so clearly invested in looking at each other, having sex and not, watching their tapes and jerking off together. But while John as a little leeway, Bob can never even considering the possibility that his sexual desire might in any way extend beyond rigid boundaries.



PS:

Right. [Laughs] “What is it about women, Carp!?”



PM:

They think they understand themselves, and the appeal of women is so mysterious, not to mention women’s “inscrutable” desires. Can you talk about this relationship, between the two guys?



PS:

Well, the real Bob Crane did not have many friends, apparently, because he would compulsively come on to women and men were turned off by that. But his son by his first marriage [Bobby] told me that John Carpenter was his only friend, and it was a very enabling friendship. That’s what drew me to the film, the similarity between that and Prick Up Your Ears. I wanted to do the heterosexual, middle-aged American, tv star version of the Joe Orton story, with all the complexities and the hidden agendas. My friend Susanna Moore, the novelist, has said to me that whenever there’s more than one penis in the room, it’s a homosexual act [laughs]. This film’s situation is just rife with connotations and innuendo.



PM:

Their relationship is so close, at the same time that they’re both so desperately lonely.



PS:

I think that they are their best friends, their only friends, and I think that comes through. Certainly Carpenter cares about Bob; I don’t know how much Bob cares about other people.



PM:

It seems that Bob appreciates himself as a celebrity, and believes he can have a public image completely separate from his other life.



PS:

That’s one of the mysteries. Someone who was so devoted to having this career, who worked so hard to get it, coming out of Bridgeport, Connecticut. And then, at some point, his lifestyle overtakes him, and he can’t stop. And people were telling him that he needed to stop. I don’t think he changed that much, really. I think what happened was that the hypocrisy fell away, and the obsessions solidified. Hollywood didn’t make Good Bob go bad, but it helped Bad Bob come out.



PM:

And there are so many levels of hypocrisy, even in a concept like Hogan’s Heroes, that everyone is initially anxious about it and when it’s a hit, everyone’s fine with it. This becomes visible in the “dream scene,” when Bob hallucinates about having sex on the set of Hogan’s Heroes. How did you come up with that?



PS:

[Laughs.] I wanted to have a little fun and show Bob coming a little unhinged. But the thing is, because Bob’s such a superficial guy, you have to do things in a kind of superficial way. There’s no dark night of the soul for this cat. So, when you have the breast montage, you have to do it in a jokey fashion. And the same thing, when he’s having his marital dilemmas; you have to do it in a pop, jokey fashion. I didn’t think it was right to have him anguishing alone in the farmhouse like Wade Whitehouse [the Nick Nolte character in Schrader’s Affliction]. [Laughs.]



PM:

Although the nightmare on the set does lead him to a sort of conflagration! How do think about your audience when you’re creating a character who is so difficult and off-putting?



PS:

I’ve never appreciated this Hollywood mania for likable characters. I think if you create someone who’s really interesting, and fascinating, you know, you can watch them. You don’t have to give Travis Bickle a dog. He’s interesting enough. Audiences will form an empathy of sorts, and an identification of sorts, and then at some point, they’ll have to back off and say to the characters, “You’re on your own now. I’m not going into that place with you!” But Bob is likable in his way. He’s not necessarily us, but he’s compulsively watchable.



PM:

The dinner theater scenes, as they become so repetitious and pathetic, offer little signposts along that journey, showing how so much of his likability is put on.



PS:

[Quoting line from dinner theater play, that Crane repeats throughout the film, concerning what his wife “looks like”]: “I don’t remember!” [Laughs.]



PM:

How difficult was it to fit his obviously arduous marriages into the film’s Carpenter-focused structure?



PS:

Well, his son, again, said that he didn’t think that his father ever should have gotten married. But Bob felt like he should. And he went right from one marriage to the other. One marriage was a classic high school romance, and he tried to be the good father and the responsible person. And the second one, he met somebody who would enable this lifestyle, so he jumped over there, but he probably shouldn’t have gotten married the second time either. It is interesting, even he asks, “Why’d I get married twice?” But once he realizes that the first marriage is over, he couldn’t get out of it until the second one. There are a lot of men like that: Scorsese is like that. He can’t be on his own for more than about three weeks, before he has to get married again.



PM:

So what is it that you think this character needs, in a marriage?



PS:

I think he needed the façade of respectability, that white picket fence, to protect him from the chaos of his desires.



PM:

And the desires do threaten all kinds of order. Even the initial moment, when Ann finds the “shady magazines” in the drawer, is so traumatic.



PS:

That was her word. I talked to her and asked her about the pornography, and she wouldn’t say that word, she would only say, “Well, I have seen those shady magazines.” I’d never heard that word used that way before, so I put it right in the script as soon as I went home.



PM:

Not only is he defining himself with this kind of split, maintaining two lives, but also he seems to lose track lose track of himself.



PS:

In the later ‘70s, it really got to be an addiction for him. He woke up in the morning, and the first thing was, “How’re we gonna score today?” It became almost a fulltime occupation. And as he said, “The hard part was remembering their names.” That’s not in the film, but he did say that. It is a kind of odd addiction, because I don’t think it’s really about sex, though I’m not sure what it’s about. But it never seemed to me like it was a lot of fun to go through fucking strange people every single day. You’re really running from something at that time.



PM:

And the addiction involved, increasingly, the documentation of those activities, to have the image available later, like a souvenir.



PS:

Yes, I guess that’s the definition of addiction, when it becomes counterproductive to your life, when you’re being driven by it and you’re using a defense mechanism against doing productive activities. It’s like drugs and alcohol, any kind of addictive firewall: it blots everything else out.



PM:

As he and John see themselves as sexual beings, they also see themselves as “normal,” whatever that might mean here.



PS:

He definitely saw himself as a true-blue heterosexual. At the same time, he would tell chicks about John being bi, in that salacious way.



PM:

So it was derogatory for him to say something like that?



PS:

Yes, but there’s always a flipside, as the lady’s protesting too much. And the whole swing scene, I always found that a little spooky. We had a couple of swing groups on the set, and I was talking to a couple of them, and I said, “It’s bad enough that you have to fuck them, but you also have to talk to them. That’s so much worse!”

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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