By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 1, 2002
If you lie down in darkness, you get up with really dark fleas, as an old saying doesn't go. But it's a truth nevertheless, and it's certainly demonstrated in the pathetic story of actor Bob Crane and his really dark flea-friend John "Carp" Carpenter in Paul Schrader's film "Auto Focus."
Crane, as readers long in tooth, loopy in varicose veins and thin in hair may recall, was the affable centerpiece of a long-running CBS sitcom in the '60s and '70s, "Hogan's Heroes." He was never really an actor, just an unflappable deejay type with a smirk on whom were hung some thin imaginings of wacky doings at the famous Nazi POW camp Stalag Goofballenstadtgeflugenhopfer.
When Crane turned up dead seven years after the show ended, his skull pulped in a sleazoid Phoenix motel room (he'd been on the road performing in a vanity vehicle that dinner-theater audiences loved), it was a shockingly squalid end for so uncomplicated-seeming a guy. But rumors soon surfaced that Crane was, under his nice-guy demeanor, twinkly eyes and ski-jump nose, a horn-dog of mythic proportions.
"Auto Focus" worms full-bore into Crane's dark side, and of course you both wonder why and know why at the same time.
You wonder why because Crane, as it turns out, was no different than thee and me, with some tiny little out-of-the-ord longings. No big deals here. Though his perversions were far greater than mine, I am fully confident they were less perverted than yours. And I do mean all of you.
You know why because what made his mundane interests interesting was a weird confluence of two forces: his own celebrity, which even in '60s America as a mild mainstream sitcom star translated into a larger pool of sexual opportunity; and the arrival of that new new thing, videotape.
Crane's enabler was an L.A. hanger-on named John Carpenter, another guy with a snout for low sex. Alone, each was probably a capital-L loser. But together, egging each other on, subtly competitive and each secretly more interested in dominating their relationship than the one with the particular female quarry at hand, they became great connoisseurs of the one-night stand, with video technology (so crudely huge in those days it looked like it was designed by the Russians) red-lighting away.
In Schrader's version of the Robert Graysmith book, Crane is played by Greg Kinnear, his gold locks darkened; the ever-sleazier Carp has the edgy intensity that the spidery Willem Dafoe brings to all his roles. "Auto Focus" merely sketches everything Crane's first marriage, a perfect family fantasy that soon enough disintegrated, his entertainment career, "Hogan's Heroes" politics, his ups, his downs except the Crane-Carp relationship, which is the film's core.
It wasn't quite a friendship in the least complex meaning of that word, yet it was passionately meaningful to each man, almost like a love affair. They are so intimate they do incredibly private things in each other's presence so casually that it indeed seems almost homosexual. But the movie never quite brings itself to make that case. In fact it documents an incident where, during a particularly intense four-way mambo with two schlumpy pickups, Carp's hand ends up on Bob's netherparts, and when Bob views the video the next day, he is so scandalized ("Hey, it was an orgy!" counterargues Carp) he drops Carp for six months.
He drops him! How teenage is that? See, that's the dynamic, the way in which the more famous and powerful Crane subtly controlled Carpenter for another example, putting the onus of procurement on him, under threat of exile for lesser or greater periods of time. But what Crane wasn't smart enough to notice was the resentment this was building up in Carp, and its ultimate consequences.
But if "Auto Focus" answers everything about who did what to whom and who put whose hand where, and reveals such shocking tidbits as Crane's discomfort with his wily and self-aggrandizing co-star Richard Dawson, it never answers the key question: Why should we care?
I don't now. I didn't then. The movie certainly never made me. Crane's obliviousness to his sinking reputation as rumors of his behavior came to shock even the sybarites of Hollywood makes him seem particularly stupid and unempathetic. As for Carp, it's hard to connect with any man who is nicknamed after a fish, particularly when played by Dafoe at his most intensely smarmy. The whole package makes you yearn for the cleansing purity of a high colonic.
Schrader has always been drawn to the fascinations of darkness beneath; his most famous characters were a psycho cabby (he wrote "Taxi Driver") and a narcissistic pretty boy (he wrote and directed "American Gigolo"). He's drawn to tenderloins, people with ugly secrets, tendencies toward violence. But he can never say why, and beyond evoking them, he has no particular insight into the characters' destructiveness, whether it's unloaded on themselves or others. The same is true of "Auto Focus," sadly.