Sunday 6 September 2009

Auto Focus (2002)

Director: Paul Schrader
Stars: Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe

Paul Schrader is hardly a minor name in Hollywood, having written Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and written and directed American Gigolo and Cat People. Having written about both celebrities and sex in many of his films, it's hardly surprising that he found his way to a biopic about Bob Crane, a household name through his work on TV in the sixties, a sex addict and the victim of a unsolved murder in Scottsdale in 1978. It's based on the book The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith.

We begin in 1964, with Crane a DJ for KNX in Los Angeles interviewing celebrities like Clayton Moore on air. Outside of work he's a family man, who goes to church with his family and who's been married to his high school sweetheart for fifteen years. He's a pretty good jazz drummer too who plays on his own show and for fun. He's worked on television, plenty of it, including three years on The Donna Reed Show. Now CBS want him for a new series, a comedy set in a POW camp. It's a Bing Crosby production and they have him in mind for the lead, but there's an obvious problem: as his wife suggests, it's a holocaust comedy. He sees it as a potential career killer, but of course it isn't. It's Hogan's Heroes and it makes him a real star.

This isn't the story of Hogan's Heroes though, it's the story of its star Bob Crane, and on the set he meets a man called John Carpenter, though not the one that we know well as a genre director. This is John Henry Carpenter, who is a salesman and technology expert at Sony and who has access not just to the latest and greatest video gear but even to prototypes. He's what we'd call today an audio and video geek and there's a serious connection here between sex and technology, fetishising it as much as Crash fetished car accidents.

Carpenter is on the set because he knows Richard Dawson, who plays Cpl Newkirk on the show, Dawson being something of a tech nut too, paying Carpenter to install advanced audio gear in his trailer and his car. This piques Crane's interest from moment one and the pair enter into what can only be described as a relationship, if not one that involves sex with each other, a relationship that serves to define who they are as people and where their lives will go. It's through Carpenter that Crane's decline into sex addiction begins. Meeting him for drinks at a strip club, Crane ends up playing the drums for a lark only to become something of a regular there. He also ends up being a regular at Carpenter's pad, the word apartment really not being enough to cut it.

He's already been collecting magazines that upset his wife; now Carpenter is enticing women back to his pad on the basis of Col Hogan's name, not just for sex but to film it too. They film themselves and each other and watch the tapes together. As a photography nut, Crane starts building photo albums of all the girls he's slept with, something that he starts to show other people. His wife leaves him after finding his darkroom so he marries Col Klink's secretary, but that doesn't stay happy for long because it doesn't slow down his obsession a bit. Soon it's not just one woman a night, it's pairs of them or even orgies. He starts following an ethos that 'a day without sex is a day wasted.'

It's an ethos that Carpenter shares and their shared obsession ends up being the driving force in their lives, no pun intended. While both men were married and divorced twice (though we don't see Carpenter's marriages in the film) and Crane is obviously staunchly heterosexual, there's a recurring suggestion that Carpenter may be bisexual, something that he vehemently denies. Their first split (and if that doesn't suggest a relationship, what does?) is over Crane seeing Carpenter's hand creep onto his ass during an orgy they watch together on video. When Crane edits a tape together for him with gay imagery he takes it personally and loses his sense of humour entirely.

For a film about sex and which has an abundance of nudity, I should emphasise that it is seriously not sexy. It's a disturbing look at how far a man can fall when he lets an obsession take control of his life. It starts nice and fluffy with an all-American family man but bleeds through levels of discomfort as the film goes on. First it gets seedier but stays in control, then becomes progressively creepier as Crane's obsession with sex becomes what defines him. The camera movements mirror his decline, later scenes being shot with a handheld camera which puts us a lot closer to the action. Given how often we watch Crane watching himself on video, it starts to feel like we're with him watching his life collapse, whether it be discussions with his agent or his wives or his sexual encounters with strangers. People around him start getting uncomfortable and we follow them down that road.

Crane gets penile enhancement surgery and the first person he shows it to is Carpenter. There's a bizarre mutual masturbation scene where the pair of them try to identify who's in the video with Crane that they're watching, because they start forgetting who these girls are and where they were at the time. The pair of them talk about making a big budget porn movie, Deep Throat having become so successful and Carpenter having taped it off the screen at a porn theater, only to cancel the idea when Disney call to cast Crane in Superdad, a supreme irony. If we hadn't realised it before, we know Crane has lost all objectivity when, as a guest on a celebrity cooking show, he makes stunningly inappropriate remarks to a lady in the front row of the audience without ever realising he's lost the plot entirely.

By the time we get to the murder scene, which is quick and merciful, the film is a sordid thing, aided to no small degree by great performances by Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe as Crane and Carpenter respectively. Crane has spent a decade using his celebrity to bed women merely to satisfy an urge. There's no feeling involved, the only woman he seems to have cared for being his co-star and second wife, Sigrid Valdis, who he effectively discarded. The suggestion is that to Crane the chase was always better than the catch, the sexual act being far more important in itself than who it was with or any other detail at all.

Given this take on Crane's mentality, we can't help but compare his eventual murder to the act of sex. Just as Crane lost track of who he had sex with, we have no idea who murdered him and it's not really seen as important. Carpenter is suggested, as he was in reality, as a likely suspect with jealousy, potential bisexuality or a loss of fresh meat being the motive. Carpenter was not brought to trial initially, though he was later tried and found innocent, there being little if any evidence. In the end, it doesn't really matter. As Crane discarded his women after sex, the murderer discarded Crane after his obsession. It's the obsession that we're meant to watch not the culmination of it because the murder is just the climax. It's yet another clever way this clever film uses to get us inside Crane's head.

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