Auto Focus is an anti-sex dirge.

Auto Focus is an anti-sex dirge.

Auto Focus is an anti-sex dirge.

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Oct. 18 2002 2:12 PM

Video Killed the TV Star

Paul Schrader turns Auto Focus into an anti-sex dirge; The Ring adds, "Don't watch that tape!" 

Wilson and Kinnear as the Cranes in more prudish times
Wilson and Kinnear as the Cranes in more prudish times

Almost every time I see a film by Paul Schrader, I think about what a sensational subject he has gotten hold of and how I wish that someone else had stepped in to bring it to life. As a screenwriter, he's drawn to volcanically conflicted protagonists, but the movies he builds around them are austere, even clinical. His script of Taxi Driver (1976) was a smashing success because Martin Scorsese, a voluptuous Expressionist, brought it to a boil: It entered your bloodstream like a drug. Scorsese cooks; Schrader freeze-dries. I think his asceticism is meant to seem classical and contemplative (he once dismissed Taxi Driver as juvenilia), but it feels more like a failure of sympathetic imagination. He won't—or can't—go all the way.

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In Auto Focus(Sony Pictures Classics), Schrader seems almost relieved to have as his protagonist a befuddled pipsqueak—a man who picks up a bad habit, sinks into druggy depravity, then leaves this world with no tragic awareness, still clueless. The movie tells the story of Bob Crane (played by Greg Kinnear), the '60s sitcom actor from Hogan's Heroes who was found bludgeoned to death in a hotel room in 1978. After the murder, the press discovered that Crane led a shadow life, that the other side of the glib sitcom hero was a man obsessed with documenting his hundreds of sexual conquests on film and video. Crane's afterlife has a neat element of drama, too, as documented in a recent New York Times Magazine article by Lynn Hirschberg: The son from one marriage regards his father's life as a sordid waste; the son from the other thinks his dad was a sexually liberated hero and has uploaded the hard-core films and tapes to a Web site for public consumption. (I would report on their quality, but they kept crashing my Internet connection—there goes $3.95!)

It would have been a terrific idea to make a movie in which these two views were played off each other, but Schrader—a confessed former porn addict—leans too far to one side to mine that rich dialectic. Auto Focus is a cautionary tale of addiction. What kills Crane, it says, is a lethal combination of sex, video, and celebrity: Because of his fame he can go to bed with a different woman (or several) every night. And because the mid-'60s marks the birth of a new technology—home video—and he's pals with a celebrity hanger-on named John Carpenter (a prodigiously cretinous Willem Dafoe) who works at Sony, he can videotape his conquests and relive them whenever he wants to. Which is basically all the time.

Kinnear, Michael Rodgers, and Willem Dafoe get nasty
Kinnear, Michael Rodgers, and Willem Dafoe get nasty

The movie starts out in a breezy style with lounge-lizard music (by Angelo Badalamenti) and a palette like '50s dinnerware—chartreuse, turquoise, dusty rose. But as Crane's addiction estranges him from his family and derails his career, the camera gets shaky and the lighting harsh and the colors like the inside of a latrine. Crane leaves his first wife (Rita Wilson) for the actress who played Hilda on Hogan's Heroes (Maria Bello), but he can't stay faithful to her, either. In his last decade Crane hits the dinner-theater circuit, looking more and more bloated and pathetic as he (along with Carpenter, who shares the booty) trades on his celebrity to score. In one scene, he spies a pair of attractive women and directs the bartender to switch the TV set to a channel with reruns of Hogan's Heroes. Then he feigns amazement when he's recognized.

The come-on actually works—Crane gets laid. But here's what you don't see in Auto Focus: the pleasure of the act itself or any human tenderness in its aftermath. What was Crane like when the sex was over? A dismissive creep or a nice guy? Did he and these women ever talk? Was anything meaningful ever exchanged besides bodily fluids? Those of us who viewed the infamous Rob Lowe hotel-sex tape weren't repulsed because he'd gone to bed with a fan—I imagine there aren't many celebrities, major or minor, who haven't, including Schrader—or even, necessarily, because he unceremoniously stood aside to let a pal of his get into the act. It was the total indifference displayed toward the woman. Schrader doesn't give us this crucial bit of information about Crane—maybe because Crane reportedly liked women and had fun with them. One of the creepiest things about this film is that the parade of females who go to bed with Crane seem more interchangeable—and more expendable—to the director than they do to the protagonist.

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In an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, Schrader told Terry Gross that Crane was obsessive-compulsive in other aspects of his life: He didn't just catalog women and videotapes, he cataloged things like his children's games. Why isn't that in the movie? My guess is that Schrader found it too particular to Crane, and too psychological. Schrader isn't interested in this one guy and his individual tics, he's interested in the hellfire of sex plus video plus celebrity; so he treats Crane with a scientific condescension, as a casualty of an overly permissive and enabling culture. You can't really moralize about obsessive-compulsive behavior.

The Auto Focus script is credited to Michael Gerbosi (from a book by Robert Graysmith), but its godfathers are producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote Ed Wood (1994), The People vs. LarryFlynt (1996), and Man on the Moon (1999)—biopics with a spoofy tone. (Even at their seediest, the heroes of those films have a gee-whiz ingenuousness.) Their stance worked with Ed Wood—largely because Tim Burton had such sympathy for the protagonist's awkward but earnest attempts at using Grade Z horror and science-fiction for self-expression. It bombed in Man on the Moon, because the writers didn't attempt to divine the source of Andy Kaufman's aggression, and because the director, Milos Forman, chose to package the story the way he packages everything—as the parable of a martyred nonconformist. What's depressing about Auto Focus isn't its portrait of addiction, it's the mixture of insight-free facetiousness with Schrader's chill severity. Kinnear and Dafoe are like loser swingers in a Saturday Night Live sketch. They make friendship look almost as unappetizing as sex.

The casting makes the filmmakers' intentions plain. In the Hogan's Heroes re-creations, Kinnear has the right shallow smirkiness (and Kurt Fuller gets Werner Klemperer's rococo hamming as Col. Klink down cold). But in the last third, Kinnear has no depths as an actor to plumb; even in the movie's best scenes, with Ron Leibman (in top form) as his brusque but softhearted agent, he looks fatuously dazed. You'd never know that Crane had any gifts as a performer, or that his Hogan was such a smart piece of characterization. The sitcom has a bad reputation for obvious reasons, but apart from its Nazi context (OK, that's a big "apart from"), it had a solid comic counterculture premise: It was about a laid-back American hipster making jackasses of the "master race." Crane was a perfect wise-guy hero for the mid-'60s: Breezy but with a beady eye on the main chance, he radiated both sleaziness and supreme competence. He was as much a precursor to Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce in the TV version of M*A*S*H as Donald Sutherland was in the 1970 movie. But Schrader and Kinnear give him no stature as either a man or a performer. Auto Focus could be subtitled, "Diary of a superficial man."

In movies, addiction is a tricky business. You don't want to glamorize it, but if you start with too dire a picture you raise the question: Why would anyone want to do this stuff in the first place? I'm an admirer of films like Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and the first half of Requiem for a Dream (2000)—anti-addiction movies that nonetheless have sympathy for the ways in which people seek transcendence and end up enslaved. There's no empathy in Schrader's depiction of Bob Crane, no attempt to understand what the man tried to get from sex and video. Schrader is like a reformed addict who isn't even honest enough to show what once gave him pleasure. He's the most dangerous kind of crusader. In Auto Focus, he makes you hate sex and movies equally.

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The Japanese horror phenomenon Ring (1998) isn't much of a movie, but it has a couple of eerie effects, a blood-freezing climax, and an irresistible premise: It's about a videotape that kills you (we don't, until the end, know how) exactly seven days after you watch it. As Film Comment editor Gavin Smith says in an article I wrote in last Sunday's New York Times, it's an old-fashioned curse picture with a clever high-tech twist: It preys on our love/hate addiction to television. Ring takes video, which has made horror feel safer than it did in the days before movies could be purchased at your local gas station, and makes it dangerous again.

The Ring: A lethal movie
The Ring: A lethal movie

Most Hollywood remakes of foreign hits lose 90 percent in translation, but The Ring (DreamWorks), directed by Gore Verbinski from a script by Ehren Kruger, loses only about 25 percent, and mostly makes up for that with a few original flourishes and a fine turn by the yummy Naomi Watts (of Mulholland Drive [2001]). Watts plays an investigative journalist who watches the tape (as research), then has seven days to discover its origins to keep from turning into a screaming-skull corpse with pop-out eyes. The filmmakers have wisely stayed close to the original's mood, which is somber and flat, with quick (near-subliminal) inserts and a soundtrack full of watery-grave groans and murmurs. They've also come up with a killer dead-horse motif. The movie is meant to get into you like a virus, and it does.

Verbinski and Kruger have made the lethal video a shade literal for my taste: In the Japanese version it was more abstract and, hence, more scarily irrational; here its imagery tells too much of a story. Along the same lines, the climactic appearance of the wraith is in too-sharp focus. Leave it to the auto-focus-obsessed Japanese to realize that there's nothing more terrifying in the middle of the frame than a giant blur.

Correction: In last week's Bowling for Columbine review, I misstated the figures on gun possession in Canada versus the United States. We have three times more guns per capita than our neighbors in the Great White North. But we have way, way more than three times the number of gun murders per year, so Moore's point (and mine) remains valid. The fact that Canadians have so many guns and didn't think to use them on Moore when he strolled up their front steps and into their unlocked houses says much about their national character—for better and worse.