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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2003


Boys wanna have fun

Auto Focus

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Paul Shrader
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"A day without sex is a day wasted." That's a hell of an epitaph to leave behind, but like it or not, that's how the late TV-actor Bob Crane is being remembered in the bio-pic "Auto Focus." Actually, calling this a bio-pic is far less accurate than calling it a disaster flick, for Crane managed to wreck his career with spectacular flair.

News photo
Greg Kinnear in "Auto Focus"

Crane's nice-guy, church-going, family-man image as the star of the '60s comedy series "Hogan's Heroes" crumbled under the weight of his extracurricular activities: endless sex with groupies and a preoccupation with homemade pornography. The nadir came in 1978, when at age 49 Crane was strangled with an electrical cord in a seedy Arizona hotel room. For a fall from grace, that's hard to top.

The producers of "Auto Focus," Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, are the same duo who've brought us "Ed Wood," "Larry Flynt" and "Man in the Moon" -- and "Auto Focus" is a fascinating addition to the alt-bio-pic genre that these guys are perfecting.

Anyone who's ever seen an episode of "Hogan's Heroes," perpetually on rerun in the States, would have a hard time reconciling the laid-back, grinning Crane with the guy who'd use that charm in sleazy strip clubs and pick-up bars night after night to score chicks. But then again, when you stop and think about it, there was always something weird about "Hogan's Heroes" in the first place: I mean, a comedy about a Nazi P.O.W. camp in World War II?

Crane played Col. Robert Hogan, a smooth-talking prisoner who constantly fooled the incompetent prison commandant, Col. Klink, into believing that his prison was escape-proof, while Allied agents ran covert operations both inside and outside the walls. The role made Crane one of America's best-known entertainers, but it seems it also taught him lessons in deception, that an easy smile and an ingratiating air could cover for all sorts of underground activity.

Or so he thought. The Disney corporation didn't take it well when the star of their 1974 comedy "Superdad" started showing up in the tabloids photographed in topless bars. Crane, at least as the film paints him, could never figure out what the problem was. "What do they want from me?" he pleads to his agent. "I don't drink. I don't smoke. Two out of three ain't bad. . . . Tell them sex is normal."

That it may be, but within reason; hitting on every woman you see is not a bright idea when you're projecting a decent Christian image, especially when you spice things up with threesomes, penile enhancements and dominatrixes. It's been scientifically proven that men think about sex, on average, about once every two minutes (just how they proved that, I'd like to know . . . ), but in Bob Crane's case, it must have been more like every two seconds.

"All I think about all day long is sex, having sex, filming sex," says Crane, played here by Greg Kinnear with a masterful bit of impersonation.

Kinnear gives us a Crane who's purely two-dimensional, a guy who blithely resists delving into his subconscious, who believes his "act" is the real him. (Shades of Andy Kauffman in "Man in the Moon.")

At times, Crane comes off as such a blank that you wonder what director Paul Schrader ("The Affliction," "American Gigolo") is getting at. But Schrader, who's perhaps best-known as the screenwriter of "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," has always been interested in the dynamics of male self-destruction. And surely his own background -- a severe Calvinist childhood in small-town America before pouring his demons into Hollywood scripts -- must have given him some understanding of the temptations and the demons of celebrity, self-adulation and self-loathing, that drove Crane.

A product of the stiffer '50s, Crane was pushing 40 by the time the sexual revolution hit, and was jealous of younger guys -- like his British costar Richard Dawson (Michael Rodgers) -- who were single and able to play the field. An encounter with audio-video tech-wizard and professional star-leech John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) was all the impetus Crane needed to indulge his repressed urges; furtive visits to strip-clubs soon blossomed into endless sessions of group sex, which Carpenter would film using his then "new-fangled" video camcorder.

Crane saw the groupies as his due, and the home movies as some sort of concrete measure of success. That young women would screw him was proof of his worth, but his need to keep "chasing the tigress" made him an addict, a sexaholic whose biggest problem was denial. As his career falters, he cuts an increasingly pathetic figure, bloated and reduced to doing dinner-theater, deliberately perched in bars next to the TV, asking the bartender to change the channel to "Hogan's Heroes" reruns. Carpenter, meanwhile, is even more desperate, his own access to women dependent on clinging to Crane's allure. He eggs on Crane whenever the latter feels like straightening out his lifestyle; Dafoe may have once played Christ, but he's the Devil incarnate here, the enabler from Hell.

Crane's predicament may seem somewhat dated here and now -- especially in light of people like Nobuyoshi Araki, who's made a career out of bedding and photographing women -- but the line between permissiveness and puritanism in American pop culture remains a nebulous one. How else to explain Heidi Fleiss becoming a celebrity for running a prostitution ring, while former U.S. President Bill Clinton is impeached over an act of consensual sex? Go figure, but let's have a round of applause for Hugh Grant, who's proven that a stupid sexcapade doesn't have to be career-ending. Grant, however, did what Crane was never able to do -- reconcile his personality, his public persona and his promiscuity in a way that made sense.

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