Paul Schrader's Auto Focus is one of those movies that starts with a bang – a credit sequence which beautifully captures the swinging style of the '60s, complete with a song co-written by the director – and crawls downhill from there.
The film tackles a biographical subject that must have seemed irresistible in condensed, high-concept form – the tawdry decline of actor Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), who rose to fame on the gruesome television show Hogan's Heroes and then plunged into an underworld of sex addiction, with the aid of his shady compatriot, John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, not playing the great filmmaker of the same name).
But what exactly can be done with this idea over the course of a feature film, beyond the obvious inventory of low-life transgressions and humiliations? After an intriguing vignette of Crane in his early, radio days, Schrader is unable to make much of the Hogan's Heroes connection, apart from using it as an excuse for some embarrassingly gratuitous dream-hallucination sequences.
One of the central problems with the film is that it impossible to take Crane as a symbol or embodiment of anything remotely positive, even before his decline sets in. His family registers as nothing special in his life, and neither does his attachment to religion. His marriages, first to the conservative, hysterical Anne (Rita Wilson), and then the rather more progressive Patricia (Maria Bello), are given short shrift by Schrader and his co-writers.
All Schrader is able to come up with is that Crane is a supremely likeable guy, a smiling glad-hander. Yet his charm soon curdles into a brutish narcissism, thus setting the stage for the self-obsession that will express itself in the video recordings of his coldly erotic encounters.
The subject that truly haunts the film, but never comes into sharp focus, is the relationship between Crane and Carpenter. Schrader raises the issue of homoeroticism, but then drops it like a hot potato and spends the rest of the story evading its fairly serious consequences. Instead, the film tries to present this friendship as a tragedy of co-dependence – with the less glamorous and famous guy stuck in a position of seething envy.
It should have the force and resonance of the Robert De Niro-Joe Pesci duets in Martin Scorsese's films – but Auto Focus is one more, sad reminder of what a drab, by-the-number director Schrader usually is in comparison with the fireworks of Scorsese.
There are details to enjoy in this film, especially in its satirical depiction of the entertainment industry, and in the brilliant performances by Kinnear and Dafoe. But it is disheartening to see Schrader chasing the coattails of filmmakers far younger than himself.
Auto Focus is, on many levels, an attempt to recapture the élan of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) – ironically enough, a movie which itself raided the '70s generation of which Schrader was a member for most of its inspiration – mixed with a little of Requiem for a Dream (2000), and a touch of David Lynch (whose regular composer Angelo Badalamenti provides the usual mixture of pop kitsch and unnerving atonality).
Once again, we are presented with a minute, almost sociological history of an odd and ephemeral cultural era, its rise and fall – with a peculiarly obsessive attention, in this case, to the nuts and bolts of fledgling video technology. Once again, we get exact and loving restagings of television shows and other media trivia, overlaid with a mordant selection of pop hits from the period. Once again, the style of the film comes in garish quotation marks – a sitcom mode to show a happy family, Dogme-type hand-held chaos to convey mental disintegration.
But so what? Schrader is often described as a booming, stern moralist who denounces the excesses of Western decadence. In my opinion, his work projects a facile amorality, and a sovereign indifference towards most burning issues, whether humanist or political.
Auto Focus is, for the most part, a lazy cruise over to the Dark Side with no central idea or guiding principle, apart from the phrase announced with vague, smug irony in Crane's voice-over narration: "Guys having fun". But if all this film has to offer is a dry laugh about the Playboy ethos, that doesn't amount to very much.
© Adrian Martin July 2003