In "Auto Focus," the strangely wonderful and weirdly touching new film from Paul Schrader, the comedy and the tragedy keep getting mixed up. The film is based on the rise and lurid fall of the late Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), the television actor whose great claim to fame was lobbing jokes at the world's dumbest Nazis in the 1960s sitcom "Hogan's Heroes."
By all accounts Crane was as bland and unmemorable as the character that made him famous, save for the fact that like Hogan he was also a captive of sorts. Instead of a POW camp, Crane was locked inside his addictions -- to sex, to video technology, to fame.
Like a lot of Americans, he was hooked on celebrity, the difference being that the famous face that made him smile the most was his own.
Crane isn't an obvious subject for Schrader; his specialty is men whose terminal aloneness inevitably leads them into crisis. He's a genius of male panic -- in scripts such as "Taxi Driver" and films such as "Affliction" -- brilliant at creating characters who, in the words of critic Kent Jones, "exist in a state of spiritual emergency." But instead of popping pills or slitting their wrists, Schrader's lonely men lash out at the world, unburdening their anomie with a vengeance.
If Crane hadn't been bludgeoned to death in 1978 it's doubtful that Schrader, who likes his antiheroes more macho, would have looked in this lightweight's direction.
The violence in Crane's life, at least in the beginning, was self-inflicted. A onetime symphonic drummer, he was an untrained actor who parlayed his twinkling affability and Ken-doll looks into all-American celebrity. "Auto Focus" opens in the mid-1960s, when Crane was working as a disc jockey for a morning drive-time show at the Los Angeles radio station KNX. Happily married with three young children, Crane wanted more. Standing in the office of his agent (a splendid Ron Leibman), and holding a pair of drumsticks, he beats out a complaint that his career is going nowhere. The agent tenderly pats a script on his desk and coos, "I've got something of interest for you," laying out the premise for a comedy set in a World War II prison camp. "Oh," says Crane, "with the funny Nazis."
The sarcasm didn't last. Crane may have wanted better material, but he also wanted to be famous: "I can be Jack Lemmon," he wails to his agent. The problem, as both the film and Kinnear's terrific performance suggest, is that Crane couldn't even be himself, mostly because there wasn't much there to begin with.
In Robert Graysmith's true-crime "The Murder of Bob Crane," a book as literal as its title, and which provides the skeletal framework for Michael Gerbosi's screenplay, the actor appears at once hard-working and unfocused, almost blurry. Outside of a vague sense of entitlement to the spotlight, he didn't seem driven by anything specific, certainly not a muse or creative itch.
Schrader has his own ideas on what made Crane run, and it's the filmmaker's sharp, at times startlingly funny read on the actor as both a figure of absurdity and tragedy that lifts "Auto Focus" out of the gutter of tabloid biography. You expect ideas from Schrader, who's certainly had more ups as a writer than as a director, but what makes "Auto Focus" so pleasurable is the absolute ease of the filmmaking. His last feature, "Forever Mine," was a dud (the film didn't receive a theatrical release) but there isn't a scene in "Auto Focus" that doesn't feel right, however light or dark. Working with cinematographer Fred Murphy, the filmmaker makes the most of Crane's early life, with its Populuxe interiors and martini-glass sparkle, as much as the latter part, when the color starts to smear and to bleed, as if in anticipation of the gruesome denouement.
Schrader keeps the film from getting bogged down in his ideas by keeping the tone balanced on the razor's edge of satire. He isn't the sort of artist who could be accused of having a light touch, but in "Auto Focus" he's continually mixing the comedy in with the tragedy, playing with mood the way he plays with set design, costume and the performances. (The re-creations of "Hogan's Heroes" are a blast, epitomized by Kurt Fuller's pitch-perfect riff on Werner Klemperer a.k.a. Col. Klink's trilling of his antagonist's name -- "Hooo-gan!") Kinnear is indispensable to the film's quicksilver changes. The performance is an amazing conjuring trick, not only technically but because Crane fundamentally comes across as a cipher. (For the record, some of Crane's family object to this portrayal.)
In "Auto Focus" Crane always seems on the verge of disintegrating. Soon after he begins working on "Hogan's Heroes," he meets the man who would play a crucial part in his decline, a video tech salesman named John Carpenter (no relation to the movie director, and played by Willem Dafoe). Then a sales representative for Sony, Carpenter helped seed interest in the company by selling video-equipment prototypes to famous Americans such as Elvis and President Johnson. Crane's co-star, Richard Dawson, was one of his clients, and it was the British actor who introduced Carpenter to Crane. It was, at least on Carpenter's end, obsession at first sight. Carpenter began furnishing Crane with the very latest video equipment, which the actor embraced with the fervor of a convert.
Hungrily hanging on Crane's every word and gesture, Carpenter was at once every agent, publicist and Hollywood yes-man rolled into one cadaverous smile, existing only in relation to the actor's approval. The casting is inspired. Dafoe is routinely cast in the role of villain, but he has an innate vulnerability that too often goes untapped. There's heartbreaking neediness etched in his face, with its skin stretched so tight you can see the bones underneath, which works in sublime contrast to Kinnear's impassivity.
Not long after he got his first camera in "Auto Focus," Crane, a devotee of what his first wife (Rita Wilson) disgustedly calls "shady magazines," started frequenting strip clubs, where he sometimes sat in with the band. Already bored with his family scene, he began pointing his sights at other women, often in the company of Carpenter. A hobby burgeoned into a lifestyle, then a mania. The pair trolled for women, bringing them back to the technician's bachelor pad, where they videotaped them every which way. Crane's family eventually dropped from view and "Hogan's Heroes" was canceled. The years bombed by -- the women unzip miniskirts, then midis -- but the tapes kept rolling, all the way until the night somebody smashed Crane's skull in with a tripod.
As in Graysmith's book, the implication in the film is that it was Carpenter who probably killed Crane; Schrader isn't really interested. What gets him going is how Crane's desire for fame dovetailed with his addiction to videotape and how our culture of celebrity can quickly become a cult. Crane floundered after "Hogan's Heroes," in time hitting the dinner-club circuit. By then he had left his first wife and married one of his sitcom co-stars, Patti Olsen a.k.a. Sigrid Valdis (Maria Bello), with whom he had another son. Throughout it all he had his ups and downs with Carpenter, which manifested itself in some hilarious sexual anxiety (at one point, while watching one of their group sex videotapes, Crane is outraged to see where his friend's hand has strayed). The men fought, separated, but couldn't live without each other. Carpenter may have been Crane's pusher, but he was also an addict, hooked on Crane and his fame.
Even as Crane's celebrity waned, Carpenter stayed. The dynamic between the men, at least as Schrader would have it, was one of mutual destruction. (Carpenter started out as Mephistopheles to Crane's Faust, but by the end the roles seemed reversed.) Meanwhile, even as his friend nibbled at him, the actor ate at himself. He was addicted to sex but somehow along the way that obsession got mixed up with his addiction to Bob Crane; he kept albums filled with nudie photographs, trophies and evidence of the women with whom he'd slept, maybe even proof he was alive. Surrounded by a cast of thousands, the permanent star of a production that would only end with his death, he was a cathode-ray Narcissus who spent hours, then finally days, in front of a television monitor getting lost in his own image. He videotaped, therefore he was -- then somebody cut the juice.
MPPA rating, R for strong sexuality, nudity, language, some drug use and violence. Times guidelines: quite a bit of nudity, some blurry scenes of group sex, one scene of graphic violence.
Greg Kinnear...Bob Crane
Willem Dafoe...John Carpenter
Rita Wilson...Anne Crane
Maria Bello...Patricia Crane
Michael Rodgers...Richard Dawson
A Sony Pictures Classics presentation in association with Propaganda Films and Good Machine, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Paul Schrader. Writer Michael Gerbosi. Based on the book "The Murder of Bob Crane" by Robert Graysmith. Producers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Todd Rosken, Pat Dollard and Alicia Allain. Director of photography Fred Murphy. Production designer James Chinlund. Editor Kristina Boden. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
In limited release.