Unbearable Lightness in a Dark Domain

Unbearable Lightness in a Dark Domain

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Apr 3rd 2018

Self-absorption, self-delusion and self-destruction are the key threads tape-looping throughout the mesmerizing case study – and prescient cautionary tale – so reflective about the miasma of self-obsession that has evolved in our social-media-infected culture – that is clinically depicted in director Paul Schrader’s compulsively watchable Auto Focus (2002).When it opened theatrically 15 years ago, Newsweek’s David Ansen nailed it: “The interesting thing about Bob Crane, the blandly affable star of the ’60s prisoner-of-war-camp sitcom Hogan's Heroes and the subject of Paul Schrader's smart, haunting Auto Focus, is how uninteresting he is. The movie is a comedic tragedy about a man who was too clueless, too unself-aware, to be a truly tragic figure. A sex addict who compulsively photographed and videotaped his own sexual exploits with women all over the country – and seemed to derive as much sexual excitement from watching the replays as doing the deed itself – Crane thought of himself as a guy just out looking for fun. In his own mind, he was Mr. Normal right up to his violent end, when he was found murdered in a Scottsdale, AZ, hotel room in 1978. The movie's themes are aptly captured in the double entendre of the title, suggesting both Crane's narcissism and the video technology that abets it. Greg Kinnear, all easy charm and mock innocence, does an amazing job showing us a guy caught in a celebrity hall of mirrors. Schrader’s not particularly interested in plumbing his psychological depths (what depths?); he sees Crane more as a symbol of a banal culture all too eager to confuse image and fame with reality. There is more poignancy, and pain, in Crane's sexual sidekick John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a techie consultant who introduces Crane to the new VTR video system. Though the movie delves into Crane’s two marriages (the wives are well played by Rita Wilson and Maria Bello), this is really the story of a folie a deux, as the two swingers – the star and the sycophant – trade on Crane’s celebrity in their tireless pursuit of orgasms. The not-so-subtle homoerotic subtext is entirely intentional. A lot of Auto Focus is coolly funny – it’s a slyly satiric comedy of ’60s manners – and the terrific cast (Ron Leibman is a standout as Crane's long-suffering agent) seems to understand Schrader’s semidetached tone perfectly. But the laughs, along with the bright colors, evaporate as desperation sets in, Crane’s career falls into ruin, his family abandons him and his life constricts into an endless tape loop of sexual addiction. Auto Focus tells a lurid story, but the director of American Gigolo, Hardcore [a Twilight Time title] and Affliction doesn't play it for cheap thrills. It’s not a particularly sexy movie. What's shocking to Schrader is not Crane’s promiscuity, but his obtuseness. It’s the story of the unbearable lightness of Bob.” 

Filmmaker’s Travis Crawford detailed in 2002 how this was achieved: “Auto Focusbegins as a jaunty and colorful examination of Crane’s newfound fame and family tensions, with Schrader employing a static cinematic vocabulary not far removed from, appropriately enough, TV sitcoms. But as Crane’s immersion into this new lifestyle escalates, Schrader and [director of photography Fred] Murphy gradually and subtly alter the visual landscape by bleaching the image, desaturating the color and moving from stable camerawork to increasingly jagged and unnerving handheld movement — just as Angelo Badalamenti’s score shifts from lounge jazz to ominous synth drones reminiscent of his work for David Lynch.” It proved to be of a piece with this maverick filmmaker’s best, most disturbing works about the flawed capacity for self-awareness in human nature. In his 2008 Contemporary Film Directors series book Paul Schrader, author George Kouvaros notes: “For someone whose external circumstances change so dramatically, it is striking how little Crane’s manner changes. The Bob Crane who attends church with his family at the start of the film is the same Bob Crane who performs for the TV cameras on the set of Hogan’s Heroes or who waves to the video camera as he is fucking a woman from behind. The home video camera’s proclivity to record anything and everything – from the once-in-a-lifetime event to the most banal family gathering – and its lack of separation between shooting and viewing make it the perfect accompaniment for Crane’s narcissism. The grainy video images that replay Crane’s sexual exploits record a performance that exists alongside rather than underneath the everyday ‘friendly guy’ role. This coexistence of what remains irreconcilable links Auto Focus to the irreconcilable struggle between words and deeds in Mishima [A Life in Four Chapters, 1990], the conflict between unbearable loneliness and violent rage in Taxi Driver [1976], and, further back, to [Jake] VanDorn’s struggle to come to terms with his own actions and experiences in Hardcore [1979]. In each of these films, irreconcilability forms the core of the drama. The telling difference is the way it has gone from being a source of torment for the characters to being something barely registered, like a TV show left on while everyday life goes on all around it.” Outfitted with an Isolated Music Track; three Audio Commentaries with the director, two lead actors, and two producers (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) and screenwriter (Michael Gerbosi); a Murder in Scottsdale Documentary; a Making-of Featurette; and Deleted Scenes, Auto Focus will grab your attention and put you through a hypnotic and disturbing emotional wringer when it debuts April 17 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday April 4.