"Tell them sex is normal. I'm normal. People have these hang ups..."
This is what Bob Crane, a shell of his popular self, explains to his ex-agent at the end of Paul Schrader's Auto Focus. He has to tell himself that because he's so dense he can't see that his obsession with sex doesn't mesh with his obsession with being liked; he fails to see the conflict. Paul Schrader is at his best when he's profiling characters who will do anything to be liked. These are usually men, and the characters are often people who have a need, sometimes an obsession, to be understood and to be liked. Whether it be Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Julian, or the subject of his brilliant 2002 film Auto Focus, Bob Crane, Schrader is a director obsessed with studying how these types of characters, and their need to be liked, leads to a lonely existence.
Auto Focus is not about Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) the television star, that much we already know, and Schrader wisely zips through that part of his life within the first 15 minuets. The film is more concerned with the Bob Crane who had an unending need to entertain and be liked. He doesn't want to disappoint anyone, and this is one of the main reasons he frequents strip clubs: he doesn't want to feel bad for turning down an invitation.
The bulk of the film is concerned with Crane's relationship with tech-head John Carpenter (Willem Defoe) who introduces Bob to the swingin' world of strip clubs, sex with multiple partners (their motto becomes "a day without sex is a day wasted"), and orgies. It's clear that the friendship he began with Carpenter was the catalyst for his own downfall, but what Schrader shows is also a man whose naivete put him in compromising situations. Crane was never embarrassed by his obsession with pornographic magazines, and in a scene where his first wife finds a stack hidden in the garage Crane explains that there's nothing to be ashamed of, "I'm a photo nut" he proclaims, as if he were looking at them for their artistic quality. That's the sadness that permeates every frame of the film: Crane is a man almost childlike in the way he sloughs off the fact that he's showing people naked pictures of girls ("not everyone looks at these things the way you do, Bob" his agent explains to him one day on the set of a Disney movie) or how he's playing the drums in strip clubs in order to "hone his craft".
Kinnear plays Crane as the lovable loser he was. He's all surface, never concerned about his own morals or ethics, because I don't think he ever thought about that; he just wanted to be liked and that came at whatever cost. Even when Crane's ego gets so big, as he becomes more and more comfortable with his suit of celebrity, he cannot help but berate his friend John Carpenter in the nicest possible way. There's also a moment where Crane, late in his career, is on some local cooking show and makes a disparaging remark to a women in the front row. It's a sad scene that shows how Crane's sexist humor is a product of a man who refuses to evolve; he thinks aloud and his thoughts of women aren't the same as those he has to work with. It shows how the obsession, the nightly immersion into amateur pornography clouded his mind resulting in tactlessness; he's involved with sex on a daily basis, so why shouldn't everyone else depersonalize sex the way he does. It's a sad, telling scene that is common in these types of biopics, and Schrader shows the perfect amount of restraint with the scene, never going over-the-top with it; and Kinnear, too, who plays the scene perfectly as a man who is oblivious to his own idiocy.
There's another great scene at the beginning of the film where Crane is doing a press junket for the show and he's being interviewed by a radio host. Crane, a former radio host himself (that's how he broke into Hollywood) is looking forward to the interview. However, the interviewer asks him a rather snarky question: "so would you say that if you enjoyed World War II you'll really like Hogan's Heroes." Crane is taken aback for a moment as the interviewer gets up and leaves as Crane screams "you're an entertainer, you should understand." It's all about entertaining for Crane, and even though now in the not-so-sensitive time of 2009 it may seem silly to think that Hogan's Heroes was ever an entity to be taken seriously, but back then nothing like that had been done before, and the fact that Crane doesn't really question his enthusiasm for promoting his new comedic show about a concentration camp shows Crane as a man who dissected few situations, all he wanted was to be told he's a nice guy and that he's doing a good job. It's a brilliant performance that transcends apery -- sure Kinnear looks and acts like Crane, but he also shows the man as being someone who is walking the tightrope of debauchery and celebrity.
Defoe plays Carpenter for the sleaze that he was. A man who uses his niche, his understanding of technology to leech onto the leftovers of celebrities. He forms a bond with Crane because really, Crane is the only type of person someone like Carpenter can be friends with. Crane doesn't like to disappoint, and there come a few times in the film where you get the sense that Crane is going to pull the trigger on ending their friendship, but he looks at Carpenter's pathetic grin (a grin only Defoe can supply) and just can't do it. Carpenter is the ferryman ferrying Crane to the underworld of sleaze: orgies and amateur pornography all for the gratification of the aftermath -- Crane and Carpenter don't get off on the moment, they get off on watching it later. There's a telling scene where they are watching one of their hidden camera, homemade porn films where they try to guess which city the act took place in. Crane and Carpenter causally talk to each other as they both reach down their pants as Crane says "this is making me hot..." It's a sad, pitiful descent Crane makes, and he's ushered there by the sad, pitiful Carpenter.
Paul Schrader has written many of Martin Scorsese's best films and as one watches Auto Focus they feel like they're watching the prototype for a Scorsese film: humble beginnings, quick ascent to the top, tragic downfall. That's the career arc of Bob Crane, a star on television before his personal obsessions clouded his need to always be liked. Once he alienated all of his contacts, leaving him pretty much unhireable, he had no other choice, because of his need to be liked, but to cut ties with Carpenter, which ultimately led to his death in a hotel room in 1978.
Schrader is on the very short list of directors who always have my attention. He's extremely underrated as a director. His writing credentials are well documented, and really, he's responsible for what I think are Scrosese's best pictures (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead). He's a filmmaker that has always been interested in showing characters that aren't always easy to take; they're often characters filled with flaws who are responsible for creating uncomfortable moments that make the viewer wince. However, Schrader writes about these characters as if they were case studies. He lets the audience contemplate their actions as they unfold in an authentic way. Schrader's films are never overwrought and are always interesting and deeply thought provoking; evoking themes you can find in most of his films and certainly in all of the pictures he's penned for Scorsese. Here his aesthetic is subdued and subtle: as the film begins he paints his images with a beautiful sheen evoking the hope and prominence Hollywood can offer; however, as the film progresses, and Crane devolves so does the films style as the last part of the film is filmed mostly in close-up with hand held cameras evoking the paranoia and grasping-for-acceptance mentality displayed by Crane at the end of his life.
Auto Focus is like a lot of Paul Schrader movies: a forgotten, or never seen, masterpiece. I love the biopic -- especially films that show me someones life I didn't know much about or an aspect of their life I didn't know much about -- it's one of my favorite genres. This was a natural marriage I think as Schrader, one of my favorite filmmakers, tackles one of my favorite genres. I think it's the best film of 2002.