Auto Focus is the latest in a series of films by Paul Schrader to explore the obsessions of the disaffected male. The screenwriter and/or director of Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Mishima (1985), Patty Hearst (1988), and Affliction (1997) has undertaken, yet again, to reveal the dark and dank underbelly of human endeavor. But instead of an unstable cabby, an unstable boxer, an unstable writer, an unstable heiress, or an unstable cop, this time Paul Schrader has put his focus in Auto Focus on an unstable B-level TV star and his decline into a wasteland of overindulgence.
For those not baby boomers nor married to a life of reruns on the tube, the forgettable Bob Crane’s star shined brightest during the tumultuous 1960s. Courtesy of a piece of fluff called Hogan’s Heroes, a WWII sitcom set in a German POW camp, the bland and inoffensive Crane (played with smarmy brilliance by Greg Kinnear) entered our living rooms, our dens, our rec rooms, to distract us from our lives. With characters as improbable as they were laughable — the bumbling Nazi commandant Colonel Wilhelm Klink and his aide-de-camp Sergeant Schultz (“I know nothing!”), the blonde bombshells Fraulein Hilde and Fraulein Helge — week after week we watched Crane as the wisecracking Colonel Hogan of Stalag 13 pull the wool over Klink’s monocled eye.
Auto Focus opens in Los Angeles in 1964. Crane is working the airwaves as a glib but beloved radio jock. His calling card was, as he reminds us early in the film, “I’m a likable guy.” But likable Bob Crane, whose cameo on The Donna Reed Show was, until then, the highpoint of his career, had bigger fish to fry. “I can be Jack Lemmon!” And others agreed with him. His soulless agent brought him the opportunity he’d been hoping for. But sensible, down-to-earth, dull Bob Crane initially had his doubts. “This sounds like a career killer,” he confessed. But he couldn’t have been more wrong. It was not a career killer. Not by a long shot. Bob Crane’s magic moment had finally arrived.
Until that time, Crane had a normal life with a normal wife and normal kids in a normal house in an all-too-normal suburban idyll. When he told his bride with the bouffant ‘do (Rita Wilson) the good news about the TV pilot, Mama said, “Oh, you’ve been working toward a holocaust comedy?” But he remained nonplussed in the face of his wife’s cynicism. He knew a good thing when he saw it. Bob Crane heard opportunity knocking — and kicked open the doors of deception.
To the surprise of everyone, including Crane himself, Hogan’s Heroes was a smash hit, the Nielsen Ratings’ number-one new show in a primetime slot. Enough years had passed to blur the memory of Hitler and Auschwitz and the Final Solution. America had grown up, amnesia had set in, and viewers flocked to Hogan’s Heroes in record numbers. Crane took to fame like a fish to water. Even doubts about the show’s subject matter didn’t deter him from his fate — a fate distorted beyond recognition by a techie named John Carpenter (portrayed with cartoonish intensity by Willem Dafoe), the man chosen to lead Crane down the road to perdition.
In the spirit of the Lone Ranger & Tonto, Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, Mutt & Jeff, Toody & Muldoon, Batman & Robin, Felix & Oscar, as well as King Lear & The Fool, Bob Crane & John Carpenter became the oddest odd couple this side of Santa Monica Boulevard. Carpenter was into high-fi and high-infidelity, an avatar of the wonders of technology, a gatecrasher to the pleasuredome, a ticket scalper to the sexual revolution. He provided “VTRs” (video tape recorders) to big-time celebs like “Elvis and LBJ,” so he was as used to being near the rich and famous as he was used to being used by them. But Carpenter, in addition to sleaziness, possessed the gift of persuasion — and he persuaded the teetotaling, monogamous, boring Bob Crane to use his fame to seduce star-struck women.
It wasn’t easy at first for the star of Hogan’s Heroes to trash his family values, but with Carpenter doing double-duty as both Hugh Hefner stand-in and Greek chorus rolled into one, Crane began to loosen up. Have a cigarette. Have a martini. Let’s go extramarital. His first affair was an epic struggle between what felt right and what felt good. His maiden conquest, a hot-to-trot stripper no less, asked a waffling Crane, “Don’t you like me?” “It’s not that,” he answered guiltily. “I’m married.” Never one to skip a beat, the exotic dancer reassured Colonel Hogan, “So am I.” So he dropped his guard as he dropped trou and commenced his downward spiral.
The second season of Hogan’s Heroes was a good deal unlike the first. Instead of remaining at the top of the TV pops, the POW sitcom descended to the Nielsen’s #l7 position — and Bob Crane, the not-so-illustrious star of Hogan’s Heroes, nosedived with it. His obsession with all things sexual, soft and gooey breasts in particular, led to an infatuation with recording his conquests on video — and before you could cry RESTRAINT, everything was spinning out of control. Winning twosomes led to winsome threesomes. The conventional ins and outs of humping led to brushes with sadomasochism. All the while, the cumbersome technology used to memorialize this smut was in the competent if well-soiled hands of sex-nerd John Carpenter.
It wasn’t long before Crane’s duplicitous family life, his stalled Hollywood career, and his repressed homoerotic relationship with Carpenter turned the formerly mild-mannered showbiz phenom into a slave of his own carnality. His first marriage collapsed. His second marriage, to Fraulein Hilde, she-wolf of the SS from the Nazi sitcom, also went the way of all flesh. Dinner theater engagements, the lowest of the low, were followed by a botched appearance on Celebrity Chef, but the once likable, once lovable, once straitlaced and sober Crane was too far gone for even these venues. When he was hired by Disney to star in a vehicle called Superdad, his past indiscretions caught up with him and the end, both figurative and literal, of Bob Crane and Auto Focus, was at long last within sight.
While Auto Focus ostensibly concerns the rise and fall of a good man gone bad, with the concurrent critique of the pleasure principle, the film glosses over, but cannot fully ignore, the thrills and chills of anonymous sex. But anonymity — like sex, like life — by its very nature, is real a moment before it dissolves into nothingness. With Crane’s memory a funhouse of mirrors clouded by booze, sweat, and ejaculate, only the implacable camera — and the venomous John Carpenter in Auto Focus — records it for posterity.
The real Bob Crane was immortalized before Auto Focus hit the screen. Crane and Carpenter’s orgy pics have graced many an expensive laptop. The depth of Crane’s depravity versus the size of his johnson has spammed many a chatroom. His porno website, it’s fair to say, has pride of place in the Internet Hall of Shame. But the out of focus Auto Focus is moralistic in tone and imprecise in execution, failing to expose any conflict Crane might have felt, could have felt, must have felt, when he wasn’t busy feeling up his narcissism.
Perhaps the most poignant thing about Auto Focus occurred before the film began. I saw it in New York City where, as we know, anything can happen, but nothing prepared me for what I saw and heard as I took my seat in the theater. In the last row of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema a gray-haired man was sitting by his lonesome. He looked harmless enough on the face of it, like someone’s granddad or favorite uncle, but whenever anyone entered the theater, he insisted on repeating again and again and again: “I want to suck your cock, suck your cock, suck your cock.”
Was that a tribute to Bob Crane?
Or a nod to Auto Focus.