It was a juicy story. Actor Bob Crane, amiable star of the ’60s TV sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” was found bludgeoned to death in a motel room. This was in 1978 and, although Crane hadn’t done anything remotely popular since his series was canceled in ’71, it had been such a roaring success that he was still considered a celebrity, albeit a minor one and on his way down.
Although the murder was never officially solved, the plot permanently thickened when a cache of home video tapes was found among Crane’s belongings, most of them showing the actor and a pal engaged in orgiastic sex with various women. This gave the murder the familiar context of “loose morals,” even if it didn’t quite supply a rationale.
But what made the affair so rich and strange was the weird disconnect between public and private Bob. Accustomed as we are to judging people by appearances, one couldn’t help but wonder how somebody so seemingly inane could have had such an arabesque secret life.
Auto Focus, directed by Paul Schrader, written by Michael Gerbosi and based on the book The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith, doesn’t so much answer the question as make it seem misguided. Crane’s murder and the orgies which were somehow connected cast a misleading back shadow on his life, so that when you see him in old “Hogan’s” reruns you may think you’re watching a guy who was so bad that somebody found it necessary to murder him. The movie suggests otherwise, giving us a Crane (Greg Kinnear) who approaches his vice with the same good-natured shallowness as he approaches his acting, someone who comes across as prodigiously sensual but emotionally bereft. Guilt is too strong an emotion for him to conjure and the best he can do when his obsessions get him in trouble is to display an unconvincing sheepishness. Or, when things start to go seriously bad, a petulant regret.
The movie begins, after a retro “bachelor pad” credit sequence, with Crane living an ostensibly normal life, married to his high-school sweetheart, Anne (Rita Wilson), with three kids and a nice home in the burbs. The only foreshadowing of bad behavior is the stash of “nudie” magazines he keeps in the garage, which is not even a misdemeanor in the spectrum of sexual transgressions. A popular morning disc jockey in LA, Crane manages to land a job as the star of a comedy set in a World War II prison camp, which consists of stale jokes in POW and Nazi drag, too banal to be in bad taste. An amateur drummer, Crane spends his downtime accompanying the talent at a local strip club.
His life of moderate sleaze moves to a higher level after he meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) (and no, not that John Carpenter), who shares Crane’s interest in the latest audio-video developments and who introduces him to the concept of combining home taping with swinging. Carpenter facilitates the flowering of Crane’s obsessions and basks in the reflected glory of the well-known TV star. Their relationship, at first comically creepy, grows increasingly dark and volatile as Crane makes some feeble attempts to straighten out the mess of his post-”Hogan’s” life.
One can see the appeal of this story to Schrader who, from his script for Taxi Driver (1976) to the best of his recent films Affliction (1998), has shown a fascination with the inexplicability of self-destruction and who here offers a visual corollary to Crane’s disintegration, one that becomes more fragmentary and “out of focus” as it proceeds. Since this is an addiction story with a well-known conclusion and one that offers little insight into the main character, one may be left with a feeling of pointlessness.
But Crane, as played by Kinnear, is a clueless and driven narcissist who deflects analysis. It’s significant that his incipient sex addiction doesn’t really flourish until he’s given an opportunity to star in his own homemade movies. He needs the validation of his replicated image, the concrete evidence of his existence — it turns him on. He’s a lightweight guy who only makes some deep internal connection with the world when he’s performing, even if it’s just sex in a disreputable motel.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.