Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus was pretty much a box office flop last year, but it’s a really good film. It’s a biopic about the life and death of Bob Crane, the actor whose one famous role was as Colonel Hogan, on the Nazi-POW-camp sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. (I used to love the show when I was a kid, both when it was originally on the air, 1965-1971, and later in reruns). Crane did dinner theater after Hogan’ Heroes ended its run, and in those early, pre-VCR days he was really into videotaping himself having sex with loads of women. He was murdered in 1978; the only suspect was his friend and associate, John Carpenter, who provided him with his video equipment and went out with him to pick up babes. But Carpenter was not tried until 1992, and then he was acquitted. The film extrapolates from these uncertain facts…
I was disappointed at first that the film didn’t go in for the sensationalistic, sleazy aspects of the story; but after all, this is a film by Paul Schrader, who has always (both as as director and as Scorsese’s frequent screenwriter) transfigured potential sleaze into masculine angst. Auto Focus is no exception; sex and voyeurism are not the film’s subject matter, but only its premises. The film starts with Southern California sun, and gradually moves deeper and deeper into noirish gloom (the other side of California) as Crane (played superbly by Greg Kinnear, despite the fact that he doesn’t much physically resemble the actual Crane) descends ever more deeply into the private hell of his obsessions.
What makes the movie really work – and what saves it from being dumbly moralistic (as if to say, sexual obsession, multiple partners, and voyeurism are bad for you) – is the way that Schrader’s moralism and puritanism (something he has often been accused of) is embodied in Crane’s character, and in his relationship with Carpenter (played, brilliantly as always, by the great Willem Dafoe). Crane comes across in the movie as deeply conflicted, but it’s a sort of conflict I haven’t really ever seen before depicted in a film.
It works like this. On the one hand ,Crane is clearly too obsessive to be in control: this aspect of his character is rightly underplayed, but we see it, most powerfully and pathetically, in the way that watching a tape of himself getting it on with some woman whose name and city he can’t even remember gets him hot. On the other hand, and at the same time, Crane is absolutely dedicated to the idea that he is “normal.” To him, this means that his sexual activities are not transgressive or disreputable at all, because he’s just into heterosex the way that any normal, red-blooded American male is supposed to be. (He also doesn’t drink, another proof to himself of his normality). At the same time, his valuing of being “normal” also means that he clings to the idea of the suburban American nuclear family, with himself as the breadwinner, and wifey and kids staying put at home. He can’t deal with the fact that these two versions of “normal” are not compatible with one another; for he can’t question the idealization of “normality” at all. It fits in, too, with his role as an actor and public personality: as a DJ, as Hogan, and in dinner theater, he always has to be the quintessential “nice guy” whom everyone loves.
This also comes out in Crane’s relationship with Carpenter. It’s a highly charged homoerotic relationship, but one that is absolutely shrouded in denial. They pick up women together, videotape having sex with women together, tell each other secrets, even look at each other’s cocks; but there’s panic at the slightest thought that they might be “fags.” This is yet another way that Crane is hysterically invested in being “normal.” The film also cleverly ties in this homosocial homophobia (or denial) with the Playboy/”swinger” ethos of the Sixties and Seventies; a self-conscious espousal of sexual “liberation” that indeed really reinscribed the most boringly normative and conservative values with regards to gender and sexuality. (There’s a great scene where Crane is propositioned by a dominatrix; he’s kind of turned on by the prospect of being dominated, but made extremely uneasy by it at the same time).
The film implies, without really stating, that Carpenter killed Crane. (Since Carpenter was acquitted, they obviously couldn’t have gone further than they did). But the penultimate scenes, before the murder, are about Crane in effect dumping Carpenter, a process that is far more emotionally charged than either of his two divorces. These men are clearly in love, and it clearly is a bitter breakup, all the more so in that they’ve bonded with each other by trading lines about women (“can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em”; later amended to, “can’t live with ’em, can’t kill ’em”).
So finally this is a powerful film about normative American masculinity, with a perspective ambivalently split between looking at this masculinity from the outside (as if Schrader were saying, look how sick this is) and empathetically feeling it from the inside (as if Schrader were saying, look how crippling this has been to me, and to you as well).