Paul Schrader is better known as a writer than a director. Having co-written most of Martin Scorsese’s better-known films, his own directorial efforts have often left him stranded between two cinematic cultures; his themes are often two weird and downbeat for Hollywood and yet his style is too conventional for the aesthetes of Cannes. As a writer/director, the creative high point of his career remains the beautifully demented and heavily-stylised Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
Well-received at the time and since largely forgotten, Auto Focus is very much a companion piece to Schrader’s best-known film: Like Mishima, Auto Focus is a biopic chronicling the rise and fall of a relatively obscure cultural figure. Like Mishima, Auto Focus uses cinematic style rather than narrative or dialogue to deliver its intellectual substance. Like Mishima, Auto Focus is about a man who is hollowed out and destroyed by his commitment to an unsustainable model of masculinity.
The film’s terms of engagement are set in its very first scene: Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) is a professionally likeable comic who has managed to build himself an audience as a radio personality. The film opens on a fairly mundane-seeming scene in which Crane presents his radio show and yet every aspect of the scene speaks to ideas of performance, social artifice and the use of multiple identities. Aside from the fact that Crane’s jokes are accompanied by laughs provided on cue by performers in a separate booth and the fact that Crane’s callers keep asking him whether he is actually playing the drums or just pretending, Crane’s first live interview is with the man who once played the Lone Ranger on TV. The entire scene drips with a gloriously unpleasant brilliantine smarm but the point is made with admirable force and clarity: Early 1960s America made it absolutely impossible for anyone to be themselves.
The sense of absolute falseness is reinforced by a visual palette that recalls the opening scenes of Lynch’s Blue Velvet: You are bludgeoned by cloying reds, soothed by pastel greens, and harrassed by strident blues. Crane’s life is a nightmare of artifice so absolute that he cannot even discuss work over dinner lest a minor setback or passing doubt undermine his children’s respect for their father. Crane’s wife Anne (Rita Wilson) tries to ground their relationship by reminding her husband of the truth behind his professional façade but this soon segues into a conversation about Crane’s collection of porn magazines. Crane has an excuse, and ably deflects his wife’s questions about their sex life but it’s clear that he’s uncomfortable even acknowledging the existence of what lies behind his professional persona.
It isn’t long before Crane is offered the job that defined his career and, after some worries about controversy, Crane accepts the titular role in the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. The film presents the series as a sanitised version of World War II in which smart-arsed American POWs outwitted pompous Nazi buffoons but moving beyond this act of historical revisionism, Hogan’s Heroes was also a series about a group of people who chose to live as prisoners of war as a means of conducting sophisticated intelligence work behind enemy lines. The one joke that underpinned the entire series was that while the Nazis believed themselves to be in command of the camp, Allied spies were the ones who were actually running the show.
Crane’s passage through life is deflected onto a fresh trajectory when he happens to meet John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). Carpenter is employed by Sony to deal with celebrities as part of their attempts to popularise Japanese goods with American consumers. Right from the start, Crane has his suspicions about the needy and transparently obsequious Carpenter but an intense rivalry with one of the show’s co-stars compels him to make Carpenter his friend. It is at this point that the film’s visual style begins to drift.
The next thing we know, proud family man Crane is sitting in a booth at a strip club. Suddenly, the artificial colours and overlit spaces are replaced by interiors where the performers and well-lit and larger than life while the audience sit in darkened, atavistic shadows shot through with blood reds and shit-stain browns. There’s a real queasiness to these scenes that recalls the scene in an early season of Mad Men when a young Peggy goes to a strip club in order to do away with her image as a mousy and spinsterish secretary.
Carpenter encourages Crane to drink and then to start picking up girls but while Crane is loosening his tie and allowing his desires to escape, he maintains the pretence that he only attends strip clubs in order to play the drums and wind-down after work.
It is worth spending a little more time reflecting not only on the figure of Carpenter but also on the nature of Dafoe’s performance. It is tempting to view Carpenter as simply a bad influence, a hanger-on, or an enabler but I think it is more helpful – at least initially — to understand Dafoe as playing a similar role to that he played in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart:
In this famous scene, Bobby Peru shoulders his way into Lula’s bedroom first on the pretence of looking for her boyfriend and then in order to use her toilet. Within seconds of gaining access, he starts playing with the boundaries of acceptable behaviour by making jokes about pissing on her head and then not closing the door when he uses the toilet. He then starts talking about sex and winds up sexually assaulting Lula’s character, touching and stroking her whilst alternating between sweetness and terrifying anger in order to break her down. At first Lula is annoyed, then she is horrified, and finally she is turned on. Peru goads and threatens Lula into begging him to fuck her and then steps back before cracking a joke and leaving. Lula is left psychologically exposed and spiritually bereft both at the assault and at Peru’s cruel refusal to satisfy her long-repressed and suddenly surfacing desires. As in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, offering to satisfy another person’s repressed desires is both a gift and an act of unspeakable violence as it places people in the position of having to reconcile the person they thought they were with the being that originated those desires. Dafoe’s performance in Auto Focus is far more restrained than the hyperbolic monstrosity he created for Lynch but his role in the film is almost identical in that both Peru and Carpenter are wrecking balls aimed at the wall between acknowledged and unacknowledged facets of the self.
Carpenter is an absolutely fascinating figure as aside from encouraging Crane’s drinking and womanising, he also introduces him to home video and encourages him to start videoing himself having sex. Within a couple of years, the pair have not only built up a huge archive of home-made porn films, they have also dissolved the boundaries between Crane’s public and hidden selves to the point where absolutely everyone seems to know not only about Crane’s serial infidelity, but also about his fondness for home video. There’s a wonderful scene where the two men are sat in a hotel room openly masturbating to footage of one of Crane’s sex sessions whilst amiably joking about their failure to remember where the film was made or who the woman in the film happened to be. Somehow, the fact that the sex is filmed and replayed on a TV screen serves to make it unreal and psychologically palatable.
One can read Auto Focus as a film about a man destroyed by his addiction to sex, but it is not technically the sex that ends Crane’s career. For starters, everything Crane does is consensual and the only professional reproaches he receives are from people wishing that he’d shut up about sex and home-made porn. Indeed, what ends Crane’s career is not the sex but rather his inability to manage more than one social persona at any given time…
As suggested in the early scene where Crane’s wife discovers his pornography collection, Crane was so ambitious that he sublimated all questionable desires and thoughts in order to cultivate a suitable professional persona. Crane’s relationship with Carpenter results in an abandonment of control so extreme that it results not only in a collapse of the boundary between acknowledged and unacknowledged selves but also the boundary between public and private personas. This complete loss of inhibition is played out in a wonderfully uncomfortable scene in which Crane’s appearance on a TV cooking show ends with him loudly commenting on an audience member’s breasts and talking about the unpleasant details of his second divorce.
As Crane’s personality begins to unravel, Schrader abandons the safe visual duality he introduced in the strip club scenes and adopts an air of more generalised queasiness. Suddenly, every scene shares the same keening soundtrack and actors pause longer between sentences as the camera rolls gently from side to side as though the camera operator were either drunk or braving the high seas in a storm. The clean-cut ‘60s costuming is replaced by the kind of bloat and ugliness you’d associate with a late-stage Elvis: Crane is all gut and tinted shades, Carpenter all half-arsed smiles and greasy hair. By the end of the film, the stylistic tradition is complete: Narrative and character disappear only to be replaced by weird speculative voice-overs and film noir visuals. Like William Horden’s character at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard, Bob Crane is dead and yet somehow death cannot prevent him from sharing his most intimate thoughts.
On one level, Auto Focus can be understood as a story about the dark side of psychological emancipation: The film begins by suggesting that Crane is someone who exercises a form of self-control so profound that it results in the sublimation of everything not directly relevant to Crane’s career. Aside from being psychologically unsustainable, Crane’s persona is simply not appropriate either for an established actor or a man living in a time when attitudes to sex were undoubtedly changing. Unfortunately, having repressed all non-professional aspects of his personality for so long, Crane is unable to find the moral or emotional bearings that might allow him either to alter his professional persona, or to sort between the different facets of his public and private lives. The result is a psychological movement from complete repression to complete indulgence.
Despite a light tone and an eye for surreal humour, Auto Focus is a deceptively bleak and unsettling film that asks what kind of people we might actually become if we were suddenly freed from both the urge to conform and the fear of repression. On first viewing, the film seems to support the Freudian line that an unrestrained ego is not so much a liberated self as a stunted libidinous mess. However, on second viewing, there’s an even bleaker message about our ability to impose limits on ourselves.
Aside from being a boatman to the hell of unfettered desire, Carpenter is also Crane’s most trusted and loyal friend. Crane alienated his wives, he alienated his family, he alienated his professional contacts, and wound up so psychologically isolated that he was almost completely incapable of functioning in conventional society. The only person who stayed with him every step of way was John Carpenter, and the only limit that Crane ever imposed upon himself was his refusal to either touch, or allow himself to be touched by Carpenter. A lot of the film’s most homoerotic interludes read as comic because there’s something faintly ridiculous about two grown men sat feet apart, openly masturbating, and watching each other have sex and yet refusing to ever jerk each other off. Carpenter not only stood by Crane when nobody else did, he understood his needs in a way that no other human being ever did.
Part of the reason why the film feels so devastatingly bleak is that it ends on what must be viewed as a tragic note with Crane deciding to end his relationship with Carpenter… Carpenter’s face upon hearing the news is a vision of anger and despair that is not only a perfect fit for the crime that follows but a manifestation of the anger, loss, and betrayal that must have been felt by Crane’s wives when they learned that they had been cheated on not just once but thousands and thousands of times. Crane was successful enough and privileged enough to live his life beyond the boundaries of conventional sexual morality and yet, despite being utterly free, he chose to manacle himself to a vision of masculinity that precluded not only queerness but also love.
Watching Auto Focus reminded me of quite a famous line from bell hook’s The Will to Change. Characteristically generous, hooks argues that male commitment to the dismantling of patriarchy should be understood as an act of self-protection:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
Like Marina de Van’s In My Skin, Schrader’s Auto Focus can be read as a story of self-obsession and self-destruction. However, while de Van’s protagonist not only devours herself but revels in her newfound love of self-consumption, Schrader’s film goes out of its way to avoid even mentioning the possibility of love. We see Crane fuck at his most physically exposed and yet Schrader conspicuously refuses to pull back the curtain and show us what it is that Crane actually feels. The only moment of emotional unguardedness in the entire film is the pain on Willem Dafoe’s face when Crane announces his decision to end his relationship with Carpenter. It’s a pain instantly recognisable and yet never acknowledged by the film: the pain of a broken heart.