Directed by Paul Schrader, starring Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman, Bruce Solomon.
Although audiences in Europe may not be as familiar with Bob Crane as those in the US, Paul Schrader's biopic is still a compelling commentary on male obsession and American sexual mores in the 1960s and 70s. Crane (played with great conviction by Greg Kinnear) was the star of successful American sitcom 'Hogan's Heroes', and 'Auto Focus' follows his doomed trajectory from television star and family man via sex-obsessed has-been to his murder in a cheap motel room in 1978.
Opening in 1964, Crane is a radio presenter, occasional actor and church-goer, seemingly happily married to Anne (Rita Wilson as a stereotypical helmet-haired 50's hausfrau), his childhood sweetheart and mother of his three children. Although initially dubious about a script for a comedy set in a WWII prison camp, he accepts the starring role in 'Hogan's Heroes'. The show's overnight success and a meeting with Svengali-like video technician John Carpenter (Dafoe, doing creepy as only he can) gives Crane the opportunity to indulge two of his interests - sex and photography. Although initially somewhat naïve - when Crane's first lover offers to do "anything", he merely asks if they can leave the lights on - he and Carpenter are soon filming an unending supply of girls for their homemade porn collection.
Crane's increasing immersion in a sleazy underworld of one night stands, swingers and sexual addiction is at odds with his nice guy public image - he's stuck between two worlds but it can't last for long. Anne eventually leaves him after discovering his stash of porno pics and once 'Hogan's Heroes' is cancelled he can't get another job because of his reputation. Crane can't understand why, as he doesn't see anything wrong in what he does ("sex is normal, I'm normal", "a day without sex is a day wasted").
As he ricochets from on-the-surface normality to disaster, the film moves correspondingly from vividly idealised suburbs to a world of dark, monochromatic motel living. Desaturated colour, shaky handheld camera work and ominous music all prefigure Bob Crane's mysterious death, bludgeoned to death with his own camera equipment.
In the past Schrader has explored his fascination with the underbelly of American culture and obsessive male characters in films he has written ('Raging Bull', 'Taxi Driver') and directed ('Affliction'). Like Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle and Wade Whitehouse, Crane lacks any degree of self-awareness, unable to see the effect of his actions on those around him. Schrader teases out the co-parasitic relationship between Crane and Carpenter showing how their friendship caused each to do things he otherwise might only have dreamed about.
'Auto Focus' starts sunny, two guys just having a bit of fun, but things start to turn sour early on. In one of the most pathetic scenes in the film, Crane and Carpenter masturbate together while watching a video of one of their old conquests. The final scenes, where Crane tries to free himself from Carpenters' insidious influence, are hurried and not fully realised as Schrader tries to tie the whole story together with an ill-advised voice-over. Nevertheless, Kinnear's performance, from charming boyish star to a man obsessed with sexual gratification, is convincing and Dafoe portrays the sleazy, pathetic and increasingly desperate John Carpenter with ease.
'Auto Focus' is a celebrity morality story, a snapshot of the sexual life of the American male in the time of flower-power and swingers, a meditation on obsession and a film that makes you feel deeply grubby for just sitting through it. Go see - but have a shower after.