From Hero To Zero

The interesting thing about Bob Crane, the blandly affable star of the '60s prisoner-of-war- camp sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" and the subject of Paul Schrader's smart, haunting "Auto Focus," is how uninteresting he is. The movie is a comedic tragedy about a man who was too clueless, too unself-aware, to be a truly tragic figure. A sex addict who compulsively photographed and videotaped his own sexual exploits with women all over the country--and seemed to derive as much sexual excitement from watching the replays as doing the deed itself--Crane thought of himself as a guy just out looking for fun. In his own mind, he was Mr. Normal right up to his violent end, when he was found murdered in a Scottsdale, Ariz., hotel room in 1978.

The movie's themes are aptly captured in the double entendre of the title, suggesting both Crane's narcissism and the video technology that abets it. Greg Kinnear, all easy charm and mock innocence, does an amazing job showing us a guy caught in a celebrity hall of mirrors. Schrader's not particularly interested in plumbing his psychological depths (what depths?); he sees Crane more as a symbol of a banal culture all too eager to confuse image and fame with reality.

There is more poignancy, and pain, in Crane's sexual sidekick John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a techie consultant who introduces Crane to the new VTR video system. Though the movie delves into Crane's two marriages (the wives are well played by Rita Wilson and Maria Bello), this is really the story of a folie a deux, as the two swingers--the star and the sycophant--trade on Crane's celebrity in their tireless pursuit of orgasms. The not-so-subtle homoerotic subtext is entirely intentional.

A lot of "Auto Focus" is coolly funny--it's a slyly satiric comedy of '60s manners--and the terrific cast (Ron Leibman is a standout as Crane's long-suffering agent) seems to understand Schrader's semidetached tone perfectly. But the laughs, along with the bright colors, evaporate as desperation sets in, Crane's career falls into ruin, his family abandons him and his life constricts into an endless tape loop of sexual addiction. "Auto Focus" tells a lurid story, but the director of "American Gigolo," "Hardcore" and "Affliction" doesn't play it for cheap thrills. It's not a particularly sexy movie. What's shocking to Schrader is not Crane's promiscuity, but his obtuseness. It's the story of the unbearable lightness of Bob.

From Hero To Zero | News