Auto Focus is a Paul Schrader movie about Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, not to be confused with Batman creator Bob Kane. Or based on his sexual appetite, Bill Finger.
This 2002 drama features Schrader’s usual blend of obsessive masculinity and Catholic guilt. At its centre are two remarkable performances: Greg Kinnear as Crane and Willem Dafoe as his friend John Carpenter, a man as creepy as his namesake’s films. In fact both men are creepy in different ways: Crane because he’s shallow to the point of psychosis, and Carpenter by virtue of being Willem Dafoe, whose face suggests a lifetime of barely-survived misdeeds.
Like Sunset Boulevard before it, Auto Focus is a tale of Hollywood’s dark side narrated by its dead protagonist. Far from a conventional biopic, the focus is on Crane’s transition from family man to sex addict and home video pioneer. Kinnear plays this transformation brilliantly, and Schrader’s sharp dialogue emphasises Crane’s desperate attempts to convince himself that he’s “normal” and “a good guy” even as his behaviour spirals and his judgement slips.
As in Shame, this is not a film about sex so much as obsession; a sad and technical depiction of a sex life that would ironically end in blood and passion. Because the film never examines Carpenter’s psyche in as much depth as Crane’s, the ending feels less than satisfying. There’s also a fairly plodding middle section and score by Angelo Badalamenti, and the movie never goes as deep as it could, nor is it bold enough to gender-balance the nudity.
Nevertheless this is an interesting twist on the corrupted-by-Hollywood story, steeped in irony and reminders that pornography is the prime mover in the proliferation of new technology. Auto Focus belongs alongside movies concerned with the fetishisation of video, from Sex, Lies, and Videotape to Videodrome. The suspect may be called John Carpenter, but the subtext is pure David Cronenberg.