Auto Focus


I remember seeing the network premiere of Hogan’s Heroes when I was a kid. I liked the throbbing beat of the opening drum roll. I liked the sight of the POW’s rushing to get in line. I liked the haughty look of Werner Klemperer as he put a monocle to his eye under the opening credits. And then my mother turned the TV off. She was indifferent to my protests. I subsequently learned that my parents considered the show to be in bad taste – which it was. I was, however, too young to understand the concept of bad taste. Also, the fact that my parents forbade it made it attractive to me. I managed to find ways to watch it on the sly. I have to admit I found it pretty funny. Years later, though, I read in the newspaper that Bob Crane, the show’s star, had been found bludgeoned to death in his apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona. The article noted that the police had found dozens of videotapes of Crane having sex with various women. At that moment I had the weird feeling that perhaps my parents had comprehended something that had eluded me.

One of the things I found interesting about Paul Schrader’s 2002 film, Auto Focus, is that it seemed to me to suggest that my initial response to Crane’s death was correct. The film begins in the mid-1960’s, when Crane (Greg Kinnear) was the morning disc jockey at a radio station in Los Angeles. He has ambitions of working in movies; he sees himself as another Jack Lemmon. The best his manager, Mel Rosen (Ed Begly, Jr.) can do for him, however, is get him a role in a TV comedy set in a German P.O.W. camp during World War II. Crane initially expresses reservations about this, but eventually he decides to do it. On the set of the show one day, he meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who sells video equipment. Carpenter takes Crane to a strip club, and he and Crane begin double dating. They start taping themselves having sex with various women. Carpenter comes across as a sordid Mephistopheles, who introduces Crane to a world of casual sex and narcissistic voyeurism. Over time, though, they gradually switch roles, with Crane becoming the dominant partner, since his status as a TV star makes it easier for him to attract women. Carpenter becomes increasingly insecure as a result of his growing reliance on Crane.

Crane’s womanizing leads to the break-up of his twenty-year marriage to Anne (Rita Wilson). Crane subsequently marries Patricia (Maria Bello), his co-star on the show. Patricia is aware of Crane’s womanizing and accepts it. After she becomes pregnant, however, she gradually changes her mind and begins demanding that Crane spend more time with her.

After six years, Hogan’ Heroes comes to an end. As often happens to actors who are in a successful TV series, Crane has trouble finding work afterwards. He ends up doing dinner theatre. When Crane tires of this, he goes to Mel Rosen for advice. Mel tells Crane he needs to change his way of living if he wants to revive his acting career. Crane decides to sever his relationship with Carpenter and tells him so. Later that night, someone enters Crane’s apartment and bludgeons him to death. The film implies that Carpenter is the murderer, though it leaves some room for doubt about this. (In real life, Carpenter was tried for Crane’s murder and was acquitted.)

The final joke of the film is that Crane carries his lack of self-awareness into the after-life. As police officers gaze at Crane’s bloody corpse, we hear Crane’s voice, presumably coming from the grave, cheerily remarking, “Men gotta have fun.” One is reminded here of Taxi Driver, which Schrader co-wrote, in which Travis Bickle remains self-deluded to the very end. According to his Wickipedia biography, Schrader was raised in the Chrisian Reformed Church, which is described as Calvinist, meaning, I suppose, that they believe in predistination. Perhaps this explains why Schrader presents us with a world in which people are not redeemed.

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