With a few notable exceptions (including Blue Collar, Mishima and Affliction), the majority of films Paul Schrader has made as a director are studies of human sexuality. From Hardcore's seedy depiction of the West Coast porn industry to the horny felines in Cat People to the star-crossed lovers of Forever Mine, Schrader's voyeuristic fascination with sex drives his movies, at times overshadowing the story and characters. As the writer-director himself confesses in the book Schrader on Schrader: 'Since I didn't participate in the sexual liberation of the '60s…my sexual freedom took this rather aberrant form of an obsession with people who lived the forbidden life.'
That obsession is on full display in his latest film, Auto Focus, which depicts--in fairly graphic detail--the legendary sexcapades of '60 television icon Bob Crane. Like Schrader, who grew up in a strict Calvinist household, Crane was the very definition of a square for the first half of his life (a penchant for porn magazines notwithstanding). Then, in 1965, the struggling actor landed the title role on CBS's hit sitcom "Hogan's Heroes," bringing him instant fame and a host of new temptations. Egged on by his friend/pimp, John Carpenter (well-played by Schrader veteran Willem Dafoe), Crane gave into his darker impulses and embarked on a decade-long spree of sexual encounters, almost all of which the duo captured on videotape. Word of his off-camera antics soon spread and after "Hogan" ended, the actor was unable to find work, eventually resorting to dinner theatre to pay the bills. But even as his career went down the tubes, Crane refused to believe that his 'hobby' made him a bad man; in his mind, what he and Carpenter were doing wasn't only normal, it was healthy.
It's clear from the way the film unfolds that the director sees a lot of himself in Crane, or at least the person he might have been had he made different decisions. Most filmmakers would have insisted upon adding a scene that definitively explains why the actor allows himself to be seduced into Carpenter's world. In Schrader's hands, however, Crane's transformation comes about gradually, through a series of almost casual choices--another late night out here, a third glass of whisky there and, of course, a few groupies on the side. Through it all, Crane is perfectly conscious of his actions, he's simply altered his personal definition of right and wrong. Greg Kinnear excels at depicting this side of the character; he doesn't overplay Crane's attraction to the "dark side" or attempt to turn him into a victim of circumstance. At a time when most Hollywood films seek to blame their character's flaws on outside forces, Schrader and Kinnear's work here serves as a sobering reminder that a person's life is governed first and foremost by his or her own choices.
Another fascinating aspect of Auto Focus is the way the film links Crane's sexual appetite to his burgeoning interest in video technology, which was in its infancy when "Hogan's Heroes" went on the air. In fact, he and Carpenter often seem more aroused by their new gadgets than by the women they bed. Before long, Crane is actually creating edited "movies" of his exploits, intercutting the sex with scenes from television sitcoms. Always enamored of the spotlight, Crane used videotape to continue imagining himself a famous actor--while at the same time indulging his private fantasies--long after his star faded.
Where the film is decidedly less successful is in its depiction of Crane's two marriages, which come across as almost incidental material. That's a shame, because Rita Wilson and Maria Bello both deliver excellent performances worthy of more screen time. As Crane's conservative first wife, Anne, Wilson digs past the stereotype of a 1950s housewife to find some honest emotion in the role. The moment where she discovers her husband's secret stash of nude photos is wrenching and you wish that Schrader had let the camera run so we could see her release all the rage and hurt that's obviously boiling beneath the surface. Playing Patricia, Crane's second wife, Bello does get the chance to let loose with a few angry words, but her scenes also feel abbreviated. Since the film is ultimately a ringing endorsement of monogamy, more effort should have been made to flesh out Crane's home life, so that we could understand what he's choosing to give up.
It would be a mistake to write this movie off as yet another Star Is Born-type biopic about the rise and fall of a latter day celebrity. Schrader is after something deeper here and even when he misses the mark, the film remains involving. Like most of his work, Auto Focus will have its share of detractors, but if nothing else, it should make for an excellent conversation starter.