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Overall Rating

Awesome: 7.25%
Worth A Look: 37.68%
Pretty Bad: 13.04%
Total Crap: 1.45%

8 reviews, 21 user ratings

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Auto Focus
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by Erik Childress

"Video & Breasts: An Evolution"
4 stars

The life of Bob Crane could probably fill up a week’s worth of the E! Channel’s Mysteries & Scandals, True Hollywood Stories and A&E Biographies. The sordid double life he led coupled with his mysterious, unsolved death in an Arizona hotel room all lead to the kind of gossip speculation that used to be reserved for tabloid expose but have found their way to daily television. Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus is a biopic about Crane’s life in the classic tradition but evolves into what has become of us all in the era of video.

In a perfect bit of casting, Greg Kinnear plays Bob Crane, who as the film opens is continuing his successful radio career on CBS after being let go from The Donna Reed Show. (The fact that his flirtatious Doctor Kelsey character was dropped for being “too suggestive” is never mentioned.) Looking for a “Jack Lemmon” type role, Crane’s agent (Ron Leibman) shows him the script to a sitcom about an American P.O.W. camp during WWII. Bob isn’t sure that a show about the “funny Nazis” wouldn’t be a career killer, but desperation and a little support from his wife, Anne (Rita Wilson), gets him the lead role on one of the most successful shows of all time, Hogan’s Heroes.

On the set Crane meets a Sony technician named John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, not playing the director), a friend of Richard Dawson (Michael E. Rodgers), who has his hands in all the latest technology. The “last of the straight men/one-woman man” Crane starts hanging out with Carpenter in local strip joints where his specialty on the drums constantly gets him invited to join the band while his sudden celebritydom comes in handy to snagging ladies. Albeit uncomfortable at first despite his secret photo collection at home (deemed by him as an appreciation of photography) Crane begins to adapt his lifestyle and capture some of it with Carpenter’s latest toy, the video camera.

It seems every time Crane and Carpenter meet, he’s got a new gadget to show him; the next step in the evolutionary ladder of video. Soon enough, his career almost becomes an afterthought as daydreams on the set become his reality and the cancellation of Hogan is even treated as a sidenote rather than a major event. Relationships and jobs come and go, but the one constant portrayed in Crane’s life is Carpenter, whose hints of bisexuality first disgusts Crane but then feels snug enough showing him his surgically-enhanced penis and teasing him about his libido using his own technology against him. Crane embraced his dark side and saw it as natural. Carpenter, whose color blindness suggests his obliviousness to the ordinary world, may have tried to bury his, resulting in tragic consequences.

Crane isn’t necessarily portrayed as a bad man, just a guy (as elaborated in one voiceover) who liked “tits.” Somewhat of a surprise considering that Schrader’s repertoire has been to deal with such depravity in a style that occasionally makes the viewer seem unclean. Think back to directorial efforts like Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People (1982) and Affliction as well as his written association with Martin Scorsese on projects like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead and you’ll be surprised how bright and sunny the early scenes are. Even the opening credits may get you to snap your fingers. The California pastel nostalgia eases us into the story and before we even realize it, the colors are fading and the cinematography by Fred Murphy (Stir of Echoes) gets bleaker even as the introduction of new technology into the story becomes far more advanced.

The electronics revolution is portayed as much of an addiction to Crane as the beautiful women in his life. From group sex to his pleasurable discovery of domination (“imagine climaxing while going down the first hill on a rollercoaster”), Crane took his love of the snapshot to the moving picture from VTRs to home movies with sound and color. Much in the same way that Boogie Nights claimed that video was the downfall of art in cinema (albeit porn), Auto Focus relegates the impression that putting this technology in the hands of the consumer helped unmask privacy in our society by stealing those private, intimate moments and allowing them for public consumption, whether on purpose or not.

Kinnear gives one of his best performances as Crane, portraying him as a man who felt he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Whether he believed it or just used it as an excuse for giving into his various temptations, Crane constantly refers to the natural order of being a man (“sex is normal”) and trying to find somebody who “gets” him. In Carpenter he found that person and Dafoe adds yet another impressive portrayal to his canon of work. Someday he’ll finally be rewarded with an Oscar and his performance here is as deserving as any of them.

Auto Focus is a film that continued to creep up on me well after I left the theater. Biopics can be a fascinating affair when using an interesting character like Andy Kaufman or Ed Wood, but can also use their subtext to put the camera on the public-at-large like The People vs. Larry Flynt and Quiz Show. Auto Focus falls into the latter category as the life of Bob Crane may not be nearly as absorbing as the mystery of his death, but Schrader and debut screenwriter Michael Gerbosi use the life lived as a jumping off point for where the line may have begun for the public and the media’s “right-to-know” about the common-and-private lives of celebrities. Arguably Schrader’s most approachable subject, audiences still may find themselves disturbed by Crane’s behavior. The fact that some may not may say more about how used we are to it that we care to admit.

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originally posted: 10/18/02 10:45:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/18/14 Ofmnzhuz This is perhaps the best selling female artist from Barbados to receive Jesus. White and se 2 stars
2/13/14 WDXsCnPgcSFqvb sverige.txt;1 3 stars
9/04/09 RLan Good performance by Kinnear but the movie could have been better. 3 stars
10/29/04 ODH This flicks was funny and at the same time well acted. Bob Crane was one sick puppy!!! 4 stars
5/29/04 Suzette Kinnear was fantasitc!! 5 stars
2/24/04 tatum Supporting cast disappears, but Kinnear and Dafoe are excellent 4 stars
1/25/04 Patricia Rohr Great Performances. A film about a guy who used his position to get laid. 4 stars
1/11/04 Atanu Great review by chris parry 4 stars
1/09/04 Jack Sommersby Watchable, but there's no essential view of the material. 2 stars
10/18/03 Jinnvisible I asked for my money back at the video rental store,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,and they gave it back!!!! 1 stars
9/13/03 Ant A genuinely interesting study of a man's rise a fall. Kinnear is brilliant. 4 stars
6/25/03 quasi Don't bother unless you are seriously bored. 3 stars
4/29/03 Andrew Carden Kinnear Is Amazing, Dafoe Provides Great Support. Delightful. 5 stars
4/03/03 The Good Crane Son Yeah, not too INTERESTING per se, but perfect acting and lots of celeb taboo is always fun 5 stars
3/17/03 Paul Coleman Yes....John Carpenter murdered Bob Crane. Great performances. 4 stars
11/16/02 Robert Scott Crane Boring. Innacurate. Waste of Time. 2 stars
11/10/02 Mipchunk Interesting movie but it feels just like a biography, nothing really to learn from it. 3 stars
11/09/02 spaceworm Ick! 4 stars
11/08/02 Suzz good performances; great study of the slippery slope to depravity 5 stars
11/03/02 rue the whirl fascinating story. 4 stars
10/25/02 Gobblygook I enjoyed this movie. Performances were great. Much funnier than intense though. 5 stars
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  18-Oct-2002 (R)



Directed by
  Paul Schrader

Written by
  Paul Schrader

  Greg Kinnear
  Willem Dafoe
  Maria Bello
  Kurt Fuller
  Rita Wilson
  Lyle Kanouse

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