Auto Focus (2002): Paul Schrader’s Tale of Sex and Decadence in the life of Bob Crane

Based on true story, a glimpse into the colorful life, and mysterious death of actor Bob Crane, Auto Focus is one of Paul Schrader’s better films, despite its relentlessly grim nature and detached perspective.

Though he has not written this film–the script is credited to Trevor Macy and Michael Gerbosi–there’s strong emotional affinity between the director and this kind of screen material, revolving as it is around a tragic and tormented protagonist.

Crane, handsome and charming, became well known to the American public as the star of CBS’ hit comedy “Hogan’s Heroes,” which reached its height in 1965-1971, during the Vietnam War and sexual revolution.

Capitalizing on his fame, Crane dove into the freewheeling spirit of the times with relish, having affairs with numerous women. Crane fell into the seamy world of excessive sex, time spent in strip clubs, and other forms of decadence that money and fame allow (or can buy).

Eventually, Crane teamed up with video technician John Carpenter to chronicle his various and deviant exploits.  The movie suggests that this association may very well have led to his murder in a Scottsdale, Arizona motel room in 1978, where his skull was crushed with a camera tripod.

The tale unfolds as a series of short scenes, sort of vignettes, never delving too deep into Crane’s personality, especially sexual behavior.  Crane’s sexual addiction comes across as a display of narcissism, rather than a way to satisfy erotic urges or other instincts.

The two men develop a friendship with strong homoerotic overtones–in one scene, they masturbate side by side–but again Schrader leaves that aspect unexplored or ambiguous at best.

Auto Focus is a weird film, a tale of sexual obsession that is so cold and distant that it barely titillates the spectators with its view of clearly deplorable conduct.