Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus is, as its title suggests, about self-interest and -obsession. Its means to these themes is the sad, absurd, short life of Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), the guy who played Colonel Hogan in the World War II POW sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes (on CBS from 1965-‘71). Odd and regrettable as it was, the series had noting on its star’s life story. Crane’s off-tv career ran something of a gamut, from pornographic to preposterous. Making his way from a working class background to minor celebrity and seeming suburban bliss, he was eventually, irrevocably entangled in his own desire, his self-absorption and self-delusion.
Bob Crane met a brutal end: he was bludgeoned to death in his Phoenix, Arizona condo in 1978. This instrument is at once telling, ludicrous, and pathetic: he was murdered with one of the tripods he used to make sex tapes.
Indeed, following the killing, a blood-lusting press dug all the dirt it might have desired: Crane was a sex addict, amassing thousands of photographs and tapes, many created in league with his buddy John Carpenter (played here by Schrader regular Willem Dafoe), a conniving hanger-on once employed by Sony (which gave him access to emerging recording technologies) who was, some years later, tried and acquitted of Crane’s brutal murder.
Recently, and no doubt egged on by the film’s promoters, diverse media have taken up Crane’s story. The ex-wives, Anne and Patti, have appeared on tv, extolling their beloved Bob’s big heart (each remembering him as hers). E! True Hollywood Story aired an episode this past weekend, with emphasis on the John Carpenter trial and the lingering pathos and mystery. And in late September, the New York Times Magazine ran an article by Lynn Hirschberg (perhaps most famous for writing the Courtney-Love-did-heroin-while-pregnant story that so enraged the ailing Kurt Cobain), which details some of the fallout from Crane’s excesses: the unhappy marriages, the Bobby, 51, his son from his first marriage to high school sweetheart Anne, served as consultant for the movie; another son, Scotty, 31, is publicly disparaging Schrader’s version of his dad; he also maintains a website featuring his father’s sex tapes. Kooky.
Schrader’s version of Bob Crane, based on Michael Gerbosi’s script, adapted from Robert Graysmith’s book The Murder of Bob Crane, is less particular, less passionate, and probably less moralistic than these others. Schrader’s Crane is a victim of his own weaknesses, succumbing to the Hollywood-induced fiction that you can be who you want to be. Hardly transgressive, Crane’s sordid silliness provides another occasion for the filmmaker to detail the duplicities and repressions of U.S. consumer culture. Believing that his celebrity, however paltry or fleeting, allows him access to fulfillment of all desire, Crane avidly pursues his whimsy, with no apparent understanding of its shallowness. (Or, alternatively, he’s so painfully self-aware of his absurdity that he bends to it, seeking self-destruction.)
For all its dedication to showing Bob’s excesses and misapprehensions, the film opens with credits, under Angelo Badalamenti’s slick-jazzy score, that posit a peculiar distance from its subject. Martini glasses, bikinis and cigarette holders, Hugh Hefner and Polaroid cameras: the images designate an era, a place, a sense of insularity, ease, and privilege. And so: L.A, mythic land of pretty surfaces and preening affects. At the beginning of Auto Focus, In 1964, Bob is working as a radio DJ and amateur drummer. He’s in a booth, hamming it up like he’s a star already, cajoling his guest, the Lone Ranger Clayton Moore, slapping his cymbal to transition to commercial. Bob has an affable charm, but he’s lightweight in every way, including his already visible lack of self-knowledge. “I’m a likeable guy,” he tells his agent Lenny (Ron Leibman), “I need something big. I can be Jack Lemmon.” You get the feeling that he knows his type, but has no notion of his limits.
Lenny comes up with a gig, and no one can anticipate just how big it will be. Hogan’s Heroes, a Holocaust comedy, looks like a terrible idea, and the network works overtime to preclude offense, inviting press to visit with the players, emphasizing their good intentions, their sweetness and “likeability.” Bob is the ostensibly perfect interview, prepared, pleasant, and ostensibly impermeable.
The front becomes obsessive and thematic: Bob’s performance continues on and offscreen. When his wife Anne (Rita Wilson) finds a stack of what she calls “shady magazines” hidden in a drawer (Nature Girls 1965), she’s furious: “No wonder you never look at me anymore!” Bob hangs his head and acts like he’s sheepish and sorry, but he’s entered into a world, within himself, from which he will not emerge.
He’s encouraged on this journey by Carp, cunning and conniving and terminally obtuse. Coming on like he’s a fan of the tv show, Carp offers Bob a way to make his own “shady” images, via video tape. “I’m sort of freelance,” says Carp, selling himself as much as he’s selling any products for Sony. He takes Bob on a date, to a strip club, and here Bob finds his apparent calling: he sits in on drums during the girls’ dances. John arranges for double dates at his home, premised on girls wanting to party with Celebrity Bob, and before long, Bob is sliding down his own very slippery slope. He leaves Anne for his Hogan’s costar Patti (Maria Bello), who agrees, initially, to go along with his “open marriage” policy.
All this activity is too much for any one man to manage. Increasingly, Bob can’t keep track of differences between his fantasy life and his real life, and his multiple roles begin to collapse. His loss of self (and self-control) is particularly evident in the film’s set piece, Bob’s hallucinatory near-breakdown on the Hogan’s set: the lights turn salacious red, Bob and Helga (Patti’s character) get busy on Colonel Klink’s desk, and soon enough, Klink (Werner Klemperer, played by Kurt Fuller) joins in. Horrified that he’s so out of control, Bob thinks—for a minute—that he might need to cut back. But his addiction is his life; he has no choice, and finds ways to justify and make sense of his excesses. Sex is “natural,” he tells Lenny.
At the same time, Bob has some dim sense that his behavior is not quite “normal.” But he can, conveniently, project any “depravity” onto Carp. As Auto Focus has it, Bob’s pathology is of a piece with Carp’s vulgar encouragement, desperate solicitousness, and most especially, the technology they use to document their exploits. As Carp keeps coming with new and improved equipment, cameras, monitors, and tripods, the pornography becomes a kind of end in itself: they watch it together, jerking off in tandem. When, at one point, Bob sees John’s hand on him in one sex tape, he has a brief moment of anxiety: “What the hell is that on my ass!?” John apologizes, promises never to do it again: they’re no perverts, after all.
It’s this absolute inability to see themselves that most clearly indicts Bob and John. Not as perverts per se, but as products of a culture premised on consumption and illusion, endless need and promise. They can’t ever get enough, they can’t ever see an end. They feed one another’s desire, but can’t admit to their intimacy. They’re miserably, incessantly horny, never satisfied, partners in longing and fear: what if they are so small, so unsatisfied, so pathetic as they feel?
At the same time, of course, Bob and John see themselves relentlessly and explicitly, engaged in all manners of sexual behavior on camera. The camera—the focus—defines Bob, as Hogan, as interview subject, as sexual entity. At one point, when he’s now the ex-star of a cancelled sitcom, Bob is desperate to pick up some girls in a bar, and so asks the bartender to change the channel to a station showing Hogan’s reruns, so he can pose nearby and act as though he’s so surprised that anyone would recognize him. Bob may have lost himself, but he preserves himself as well, in that tv image.