(2002) dir. Paul Schrader
Back in film school, I TA’ed a Critical Writing class that did a small survey of the films of Paul Schrader. He was the professor’s choice, not one that we had any input on. Previous to this, I had seen only a couple of his films, and really didn’t have much of an image of him as a director. After working with his films American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Patty Hearst (1988), and Affliction (1997), I don’t know that we came to a specific image of him as a director then either. He does have some persistent themes, often focusing on deviant sexuality (and by deviant, I mean his own inflection of the deviance) and featuring strong religious themes (often more in observation of characters who shed once powerful religious views).
In this sense, Auto Focus seems apt material for Schrader. In Bob Crane, Schrader has a protagonist who meets both of the above mentioned criteria. Schrader poses Crane at the beginning of the film as a good Catholic family man with his wife and three kids, living in a world not unlike that of the Donna Reed Show (a program that is mentioned more than once as a place that Crane got his start in television.) Though Crane’s life is shown as some idealized early 1960’s sit com, he already has a predilection for pornography, something transgressive in his world as well as something for which his wife chastises and shames him. It is the first signs of the sexual addiction that will prove to be his downfall.
Schrader portrays Crane’s downfall into the lurid world of extra-marital sex very much the way that other movies that deal with other “addictions” do. At the beginning of the film, Crane is utterly a teetotaler, but after very innocently being introduced to his vice at a party, he quickly cannot seem to live without it. Crane meets up with his Iago-like friend/fiend, John Carpenter, a home video pioneer, who abets Crane in documenting his sexual exploits and introduces him the world of promiscuous sex.
There is a lot of material here ripe for some classical analysis, significantly, related to the self-reflexive aspect of the material. The filmic documents that Crane obsesses over show him to be a true filmmaker. His wife at one point notes that all he seems to do is shoot films and edit them. Perhaps, though, there is some denigration of the video medium. There is almost a sense of mockery prevalent in Crane and Carpenter’s conversations about their avid excitement over “new” (now highly passe) technologies. But Crane is highly associated with the filmmaking /documentary process. It is interesting to note that Crane is even ultimately bludgeoned to death with a tripod.
For me, the film was interesting and reasonably well-made, but not something overly enjoyable. It was like many of Schrader’s other films in that it clearly has a lot going on and is at times quite interesting, but really lacks that je ne sais quoi that would make it a great film…or perhaps even a very good film. This is ultimately a question of taste, I suppose.