[box cover]

Auto Focus

"I'm a red-blooded American man. I like to look at pictures of naked women." So says Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) in Paul Schrader's 2002 Auto Focus, a look at the moderate rise and pathetic fall of the '60s TV star who gained celebrity on the prisoner-of-war comedy series "Hogan's Heroes" but couldn't gain substantial work after the show was canceled and then found himself caught up by his own sex addictions — a torrid swinger's lifestyle that (presumably) led to his brutal 1978 murder. Schrader's film effectively captures the inherent puzzle of Bob Crane, focusing on the man's life (and lifestyle) while glossing over the murder, which officially remains unsolved. A radio DJ who first found success in Connecticut before relocating to L.A., Crane first appeared before American television audiences as a supporting player in the popular "Donna Reed Show." Still on the radio in the '60s, he's been lobbying for a feature-film career, but the comedian suddenly finds the pilot for "Hogan's Heroes" on the table. After some hesitation he accepts, and Americans everywhere become familiar with the snarky, leather-jacketed comic who unleashes hijinks on his Nazi captors every week. However, the show takes a toll on his marriage — a situation that isn't helped by his growing friendship with electronics-buff John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a Sony representative who introduces him to the new technology of videotape. The medium fascinates Crane, who already is an avid photography buff and jazz drummer; and not merely for the technical possibilities of cheap, instant-playback recording, but for darker purposes: Crane is an avid smut-fiend who collects girlie magazines, which he (unsuccessfully) hides from his wife (Rita Wilson). Before long, Crane and Carpenter are prowling L.A.'s seedy late-night clubs looking for chicks, whom they summarily take back to Carpenter's place for videotaped orgies. "Hogan's" is canceled in 1971 and Crane finds himself in a second marriage, but he's also on the road most of the time performing dinner theater. The schedule takes its toll once again on his domestic life, not to mention the fact that he and Carpenter find their way into swingers networks in several American cities. But Crane still can't get into movies or back on the small screen, causing him to tell Carpenter on one fateful night that he's ready to leave the swinging behind and start his life anew.

*          *          *

Auto Focus is a welcome film from Paul Schrader, one of America's first-rate second-tier directors. First gaining prominence as a screenwriter for Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese (Obsession, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) before embarking on his own directorial career, Schrader's output hasn't always been consistent, but works such as Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Affliction, and Light Sleeper have been notably impressive, if not box-office hits. With Auto Focus, he once again returns to his overarching theme — a man who finds himself caught up in circumstances that are beyond his control, stifled by the faults and inadequacies that have led to his predicament. However, the film has a much lighter tone than most of Schrader's previous pictures, thanks in part to the fact that Bob Crane really wasn't all that creepy as much as an enigma. Handling the lead role is Greg Kinnear, who made the unlikely transition from TV host to movie star with 1995's Sabrina and then, two years later, As Good as it Gets. Some critics may have been tempted to write Kinnear off as a lightweight at first, but with Auto Focus he gets a shot at A-list material and proves that he's not just a handsome midwesterner with a friendly smile, but an actor who can immerse himself enough in a character that we forget who we're really watching. It's not just that Kinnear bears a passing resemblance to Crane in the day's fashions and jet-black hair — he nails Crane's loopy vocal inflections while conveying the man behind the celebrity: sex-addicted, headstrong, naive, emotionally needy, and completely in denial. Willem Dafoe (one of Schrader's favorite actors) delivers a suitably powerful performance as John Carpenter, the man who would enable Crane's sex-fantasy lifestyle, but it's notable that Kinnear holds his own with Dafoe, and with the tougher role at that. Of course, Auto Focus does not shy away from sex, and some brouhaha was made over cuts that would get the film the studio-required "R" rating. Much nudity remains, while one videotape shot was digitally obscured by Schrader rather than removed. However, there's nothing salacious or prurient in the film — despite all of the nudity, it's almost aggressively un-erotic, in some ways as false and barren as the relationships Crane formed with his wives and children, and even Carpenter himself. In one remarkable scene, the two juvenile cohorts watch a videotape and casually begin masturbating under their clothes. Schrader captures the moment in all of its raw indifference; Crane fumbles for his glasses to get a better look, and the two men could just as easily be talking about baseball stats as last night's nookie. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Auto Focus features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio. Features include three complete commentary tracks — the first with director Schrader, the second with Kinnear and Dafoe, and the third with scenarist Michael Gerbosi and producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Also on board is the documentary "Murder in Scottsdale," which examines the Crane murder scene and Carpenter's trial (with graphic crime-scene photos) (48 min.), five deleted scenes with commentary, a "making-of" featurette (6 min.), and trailers. Keep-case.

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