Monday, April 25, 2005

Bob Crane: A life in dirty pictures.

Auto Focus stars Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane of "Hogan's Heroes" fame, and Willem Dafoe as John Carpenter--not the famous horror director but the skeezy video and audio technician, who was later the main suspect in Crane's death. Willem Dafoe is always effective on a visceral level playing physically unsettling characters. It's a miracle Dafoe's career hasn't been defined by his appearance like Christopher Walken's has, damning him to playing nothing but B-movie heavies and serial killers with sexual fetishes involving allegator clips, severed labia, and car batteries. There's a certain I-don't-know-what about his smile that is sly and off-putting, and as soon as Dafoe points his grin at poor Bob Crane, we know degeneracy and oily corruption will be seeping into the soft tissues of his mind before long.

There's something a little dull in the narrative arc to these stories of success, decadence, and inevitable death by overdose, murder, or suicide. Once you realize the chink in the moral fortitude of the achingly ambitious hero after the first 20 minutes of the film, the remaining 70 minutes are generally predictable and do nothing to advance your understanding of the characters. It's a bit like watching a 15 yard fuse on a stick of dynamite slowly fizzle down. When the stick finally explodes you're left still hungry for fire and shrapnel by all the disproportionate amount of build-up before the ensuing carnage. Auto Focus doesn't really escape giving the audience a bloated case of ennui, but it makes a valiant effort.

A strong point of interest is in Bob Crane's supposed duplicity. At the beginning of the film I felt Kinnear was trying too hard to seem saccharine, aspiring to be the paragon of the loving father. His doting and wholesome behavior around his children and wife is genuine, though. He's fully internalized the Ward Cleaver values and they follow him everywhere, but seem to have been packaged without any articles regarding sexual morality or restraint. So Kinnear's performance as Bob Crane isn't classically duplicitous, where the character maintains a cleanly fa├žade to enable his vice-friendly side. Bob tries to keep his behavior a secret from his wife and children as a kind of courtesy, but he often brags about his conquests at work, sharing a few of his countless photographs of naked women with co-workers and bosses. When his manager repeatedly asks him to be more discrete, Bob's response is a bewildered: "But I'm normal." Crane doesn't believe his drives are deviate; he's merely in a rare position to indulge in them every night, and who wouldn't want to brag about one's hobbies?

Crane eventually realizes his life is being affected by his addiction to sex and video, and begins to curtail his indulgence, telling his partner-in-crime John Carpenter that he won't be joining him on future babe hunts. Carpenter has no job now, has no real claim to fame to help grease the wheels for one night stands, and realizes that without Crane he will probably not be getting any action to speak of for awhile. Bitter that Crane never appreciated all the video equipment that Carpenter sent his way, and acting true to his addiction, John (allegedly) reacts violently.

The case was never solved, but it's more likely than not that John Carpenter killed Bob Crane. Carpenter was more or less the stereotypical image of the unstable, spindly pervert. Bob, however, didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't avoid paying alimony, didn't swear in front of his family or even much around friends. He was that disc jockey in the morning that was never funny or edgy (dirty) enough to be an effective stand-up comedian, which makes his moments on screen showing off his newly surgically enhanced penis, masturbating in front of people, and explaining his fondness for all sizes of nipples surreal, more perverted, and obsessive. His vice is just so singular and out of sync with the rest of his personality, that the disease of addiction is rendered naked for all us voyeurs to gaze at.

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