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    Auto Focus

    A wank and a nod

    A tone of anti-sexual moralism takes the life out of "Auto Focus," Paul Shrader's bio-pic of the tragicaly libidinous "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane.


    (Originally reviewed at the 2002 New York International Film Festival)

    The most compelling scene in a movie this year is that of Willem Dafoe and Greg Kinnear sitting on a sofa and masturbating together in Paul Shrader's "Auto Focus." Now, "The Two Towers" hasn't come out yet but I'd say that barring some elf doing something unexpectedly disgusting with Frodo Baggins, "Auto Focus" has a lock. Unfortunately, to get this bong of a scene up to your lips and actually inhale you've got to labor through the rest of Shrader's tired, moralistic, anti-sex sermon about The Darkness in Man's Soul which comes fully larded with flabby Euro-art conventions that passed their Sell By date two decades ago. On the bright side, however, put up with the rest of this movie and you'll also get a nearly-as-good scene of Willem Dafoe and Greg Kinnear having a tiff over Willem grabbing Greg's butt during an orgy ("But it was a group grope, Bob!" Dafoe offers).

    Directed by: Paul Shrader.
    Written by: Michael Gerbosi from book by Robert Graysmith.
    Cast: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman, Ed Begley Jr., Bob Crane Jr..

    Related links: Official site | Official Bob Crane site from Scotty Crane
    It's too bad that this bio-pic will be most people's introduction to Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), the actor who played Hogan on "Hogan's Heroes" and who was addicted to photographing and filming his sexual exploits with so many women that, if laid end to end, they would build a human bridge to the moon and back. Crane was a one-trick pony whose celebrity pretty much started and ended with "Hogan's Heroes", but his "aw shucks" demeanor stands in stark contrast to his life-long obsession with not only having sex with hundreds of women, but with becoming an early adaptor of home video equipment so he could tape and edit his couplings. To this end he befriended John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) a color blind video salesman who helped Crane get swinging in the swinging 60's. It's an inspirational testament to man's ability to turn every technological advance into a pornography delivery device, and Carpenter and Crane are eager missionaries. Crane wound up in a New Mexico motel room, beaten to death with one of his own tripods (oh! the irony!), and the case was filed away as "unsolved", although Shrader is convinced that Carpenter did it, even though the poor guy was acquitted.

    This flick has all the sincerity of a televangelist — luring you in with the lurid promise of seeing Colonel Hogan having an orgy, and then giving you a lecture on why that kind of thing is bad, bad, bad.  

    Now, without much cooperation from any surviving Cranes, Shrader has turned a script by a food delivery guy into a movie about American male sexual identity, "two men .╩.╩. involved in a conflict probably neither of them would have done alone", the corrosive effect of celebrity, and the desensitizing effect of addiction. Pardon me, I just fell asleep. This flick has all the sincerity of a televangelist — luring you in with the lurid promise of seeing Colonel Hogan having an orgy, and then giving you a lecture on why that kind of thing is bad, bad, bad. It's the same trick sideshow operators run, a classic bait and switch: once you've paid to see Shrader's show, he lectures you for wanting to see it in the first place.

    It must have been fun to shoot a movie with so much sex in it, especially when so many American movies only show sex with violence, but whereas Bob Crane loved sex, his filmic biographer seems ambivalent, at best, about it. A far better chronicler of the priapic sitcom star would be his son, Scotty Crane, who runs a web site devoted to selling Bob Crane porn tapes and photos. Scotty defends his dad like a bull terrier, and insists that he wasn't the dark figure that Shrader says he was. A quick perusal of his site delivers more passion and thrills than Shrader's multimillion-dollar movie. If this were a Socialist Republic we'd get to send Shrader to the countryside to be re-educated.

    Not only is "Auto Focus" boring and mean (mean because it's not smart enough to show us Crane's life without playing "blame the victim" over his death) but it doesn't even look good. Shrader tries a trick where he starts the movie with classic compositions and camera movements, and then progressively degrades the film stock and starts using handheld cameras to show the degradation of Crane's soul. Or something. It's pulled off so timidly and halfheartedly that it winds up looking like they couldn't afford to have a properly timed print developed. There's also a lead-footed credit sequence that may be paying homage to Saul Bass, but it may also be the producer's son's high school animation project.

    Later this year, Chuck Barris, the host of "The Gong Show" will get the mondo-movie treatment in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," written by "Being John Malkovich's" Charlie Kaufman. Remember a few years ago when all we had to put up with were lame remakes of "The Flintstones" and "The Beverly Hillbillys"? Now, just when we thought they were running out of television shows to put onscreen, it looks like every single cast member of those shows will be getting their very own joyless little bio-pic.

    OCTOBER 26, 2002

    Reader comments on Auto Focus:

  • WHO WAS EMILY?   from JOE GAMMIN, Nov 26, 2003

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