Published on April 14th, 2003 | by Ed Colley0
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman, Bruce Solomon
Auto Focus, Paul Schrader’s latest directorial outing, is a curious film, and the fact that it has been made at all is somewhat difficult to understand. Of course, Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, one of the most important films of modern cinema, and has had a fairly interesting career as a director, but a movie that deals with a sitcom actor (little known outside of the USA) and his descent into sexual addiction does not exactly make for box office magic, either literally or figuratively.
This is not to say that there is nothing within Auto Focus to enjoy or congratulate. Greg Kinnear puts in the best performance of his career so far as Robert Crane, the 1960s disc jockey who rose to intense but short-lived fame as the star of Hogan’s Heroes (a kind of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, but set in a Second World War POW camp and without the camp humour). Kinnear is in virtually every scene of Auto Focus and is excellent as the happily married and successful man who by his own volition gets sucked in and spat out of the trappings of his success.
As Crane’s voiceover says at one point in the film, ‘I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, so two out of three was not bad’. Crane’s vice is sex, and thanks to his role as Hogan, he is given the power and the opportunity to progress from the ‘shady magazines’ his first wife finds in his garage, to extra marital flings, to second marriages, and to orgies.
Accompanying Crane on his journey of sexual discovery and feeding off his success is John Carpenter, a man who begins as Crane’s mentor and ends as the person who literally takes away his life. Willem Dafoe puts in a strong although slightly exaggerated performance as the unbalanced individual who introduces Crane to the possibilities of sexual conquest and to its coupling with the newly-invented (at least for the 1960s) video cameras and players which he sells, allowing the two men to record and then play back their many sexual encounters (which leads to one of the film’s highlights, an equally amusing yet depressing scene where the two men casually beat off in front of each other whilst watching some homemade porn).
Schrader ably illustrates the way in which male power, male friendship and male invention can at times combine to warp the sexual appetites of men and inevitably control their lives. As such the film’s subtext is both a critique of the weakness of men and the way in which they can all too easily be controlled by their most basic drives, as well as a critique of the way people can perceive celebrities as existing on a higher plane and one which they will do pretty much anything to be part of. Crane is able to keep a photo album of the breasts he has known and edits endless hours of footage of him involved in a multitude of sexual positions not only because he wants to but because he can, because his success and fame, even when it is but a distant memory, enables him access to women.
A film that for once shows the weakness of men should be congratulated, but does not necessarily act as the basis for a successful film. Kinnear and Dafoe are both good, and Schrader’s direction is at times interesting, particularly in the way that he uses vibrant and crisp colours and strong direction to denote Crane’s bourgeoisie innocence at the beginning of the film, and then a shaky steadicam and washed out colours once Crane’s life gets a bit pear-shaped. Yet without growing up with Hogan’s Heroes or knowing who Robert Crane was, the first, gossip-driven layer of Auto Focus(that clean cut American celebrities can in fact be very naughty indeed) is lost. Although the second layer and its analysis of male weakness, the culture of celebrity and the way in which the introduction of video tape to American society related to an increase in voyeuristic activity is undoubtedly interesting, it is not really a strong enough basis for a really good film.
Crane and Carpenter’s motto was ‘A day without sex is a day wasted’; in Auto Focus Schrader delivers an original analysis of how one man’s life was literally wasted thanks to far too many days of sex, but he cannot exceed the limits of his narrative to create a film which, if you were unable to see it, would cause you to think that this too was an opportunity wasted.