Dir. Paul Schrader, 2002, US, 105 mins
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bella, Ron Leibman, Bruce Soloman
Back in the 1970s, actor Bob Crane was loved by audiences on both sides of the Atlantic as the eponymous Colonel Hogan of the hit TV sitcom Hogan's Heroes. To the outside world, the image he presented was of a God-fearing, all-American family man but, privately, the weak-willed Crane had a penchant for pornography, orgies, and dangerous liaisons that ended with him being found bludgeoned to death in a seedy hotel room. The killer was never found but fingers were pointed at Crane's long-term associate, electrician John Carpenter.
As one might expect from the writer of Taxi Director and Raging Bull, Autofocus is uncomfortable yet mesmerising to watch, capturing the outer and inner disintegration of a man. Greg Kinnear as Crane ably catches the superficiality and insincerity of the character but in such a way that also elicits compassion, whilst Willem Dafoe, complete with slick black hair and bare chest, is horribly convincing as the leeringly sleazy Carpenter. It is this complex, essentially heterosexual relationship between these two men that has allowed the film to be described as "a fascinating chronicle of American male sexual identity in the 60s & 70s." Carpenter is a technical whizz-kid who ingratiates himself to celebrities. When Crane tells him he has always been interested in photography Carpenter tells him he will love VTRs.
Whilst Crane has only himself to blame for his own downfall, it is Carpenter who is its catalyst, taking him to strip joints and introducing him to the strippers, all of whom are only too pleased to meet and perform privately for a celebrity. Very soon, naked women, orgies, and all being recorded on videotape, are very much an important part of Bob Crane's life, with Carpenter as the satanic tempter, leading him further and further astray. Says Greg Kinnear "John's that person in your life that you may be much better off never having met. Had Bob not come across John when he did, he might have avoided slipping into that lifestyle. I think their union was the thing that powered Bob and as the same time was very hurtful to him."
This dichotomy in Crane's life, his very real need to be "liked", yet his complete inability to conduct his private life in a manner that merited this, was what most intrigued director Paul Schrader. He says "The interesting thing about Bob Crane is that all his life he wanted to be the nice guy, he didn't want to offend anyone, and all the while there's this tail growing behind him that he's trying to ignore."
There is some ambiguity within the film as to whether Carpenter was, in fact, a bisexual with his own designs on Crane. Indeed, it is a misplaced hand (Carpenter's on Crane's buttocks) observed by Crane when watching a video of their most recent orgy, that precipitates the breakdown of their relationship. Carpenter dismisses it lightly but it is Crane's reaction that is of interest - the fact that it had obviously never once occurred to him that this might happen. In fact, a lot of things don't really occur to Bob Crane. He is a selfish man - not intentionally so but rather one who is blind to anything beyond his own needs. Schrader reflected this in the title of the film and says that it refers to being "self-absorbed. it simply means Auto (meaning "self") Focus. Self Focus. The title really does speak to the theme, which is selfishness."
Autofocus manages to convey the series of subtle shifts from Crane's bright, happy-go-lucky beginnings, to the dark, murky place where he ends up, by utilising different filmstocks, developing techniques, and expressive lighting. Says Schrader "My visual strategy was rather simplistic, but I think it's effective. It's just an arc from clean lines to clutter, an arc from stable cinematography to shaky cinematography, an arc from saturated colour to desaturated colour. So it's just an arc, the world becoming less stable, less predictable."
Schrader's strategy effectively illustrates Crane's inner degeneration and, with strong performances all round, including Rita Wilson and Maria Bello as Crane's long-suffering first and second wives, this is a brutal and compelling biopic, saturated by sex yet devoid of emotion, but one that evokes sympathy for some thoroughly unpleasant characters who succumb to temptation and pay the price, and therefore all too real.