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AUTO FOCUS
U.S. Release Date: October 18, 2002
Distributor: Sony Classics
Director: Paul Schrader
Producer: Trevor Macy (executive)
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (strong sexuality, nudity, language, some drug use and violence)

Focusing on Obsession
by C.A. Wolski

I remember when Bob Crane was murdered in 1978. It probably had about the same effect on me that Elvis' death the year before had on my dad. I had grown up watching the exploits of Crane's Col. Robert Hogan and his heroes, watched his short-lived Hogan's follow-up The Bob Crane Show and even saw his last two Disney efforts SuperDad and Gus and remember them with great nostalgia. To this day, I'm a Hogan's Heroes fanatic always up for catching a rerun on TVLand. I liked Bob Crane, and still do, because he came off as a likeable guy. And, by all accounts, he was a likeable guy except for one ugly, sad fact: he was a sex addict, an addiction that probably cost him his life.

Directed by Paul Schrader (American Gigolo), Auto Focus uses the facts of Crane's life from the time he parlayed his successful disc jockey career in Los Angeles into his successful run on Hogan's Heroes to his murder in a seedy Scottsdale, Ariz., apartment as the basis of his meditation on addiction. The movie is spot on showing the downward spiral of Crane's life with little nostalgia. But to say that this is the "truth" of Crane's life would be giving Schrader too much credit. Scotty Crane, Crane's son by his second wife, Patty (who played Klink's secretary Hilda on Hogan's Heroes), has publicly disputed the events depicted in the movie, though he should remember that this is not a documentary but a fictionalized account of a real person's life.

With any biopic events are slanted, facts added or left out, "composite" characters created. This is not a definitive portrait of Bob Crane the person, but the story of "Bob Crane," a successful actor who also happened to be a sex addict. And this is how the picture should be regarded. It's a brilliant, sly, sad, often funny look at addiction and obsession, and how addiction can sneak up on us and devour us with our willing cooperation.

Greg Kinnear's performance as Crane is a wonder. He captures Crane's gee-golly attitude while self-destructing before our very eyes. Willem Dafoe turns in another creepy, vampiric performance as Crane's friend/sexual enabler John Carpenter.

The look of the film is incredible, changing styles as the years pass by, first having a cheery 1960s color-saturated hue and slowly shifting to the washed out urban look of the 1970s. The recreations of several Hogan's Heroes scenes are dead on, completely reconstructing the sets, uniforms and even line deliveries from the original series.

Of course, because of its subject matter, Auto Focus has a lot of sex in it, including full-frontal nudity and simulated scenes that are fairly graphic. But there is nothing sexy about Crane's romps with an endless legion of fans and groupies. While tracing Crane's descent into addiction, the movie also, tacitly, traces the changing mores of America's sexual landscape with the intensity and availability of sex and sexual images increasing in inverse proportion to Crane and Carpenter's ability to find willing partners.

Auto Focus is probably one of the best movies about addiction and obsession I've ever seen, primarily because Schrader ironically does not moralize about Crane's destruction. He does what a filmmaker should do. He shows us all the facts and leaves it to us to come to conclusions. He doesn't even let Crane do the work for us. In the coda, Kinnear's Crane is unapologetic about his life and forgiving to the person who probably killed him. It is at the same time a strangely upbeat and chilling ending.

Though at times hard to watch, Auto Focus should not be missed.


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