2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Auto Focus’ (Paul Schrader, 2002)

Greg Kinnear as Bob CraneMaria Bello as Patricia Crane

Part biopic and part meditation on sexual addiction, Auto Focus stars Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane, the actor best known for his titular role on Hogan’s Heroes. From Bob’s days on Los Angeles morning radio to his violent death decades later, the film doesn’t follow the typical rise and fall Hollywood narrative. Focusing instead on Crane’s sexual obsession that turns over to addiction, Paul Schrader explores off the rails desires that shift towards self-destruction.

As the film opens up, it’s the early 1960s and Crane has just been offered a role in a new television series about World War II. His haircut still has that 50s shine, and he’s wearing a neatly pressed, brightly colored cardigan. A teetotaler who never smokes and attends church every Sunday, Bob embodies the perfect family man with great ambitions but, almost immediately, cracks in his veneer image start to appear.

It’s insinuated that Bob’s previous television role on The Donna Reed Show went sour because he couldn’t maintain the right kind of public image, and his wife scolds him for keeping nudie mags in their garage. Soon, Bob meets a wizard technician, John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who drags him to a strip club and down an increasingly seedy world of sexual debauchery. The pair bond over their shared fascination with cameras and get together to document, in photographic detail, their affairs. What began as a nightly extramarital hobby for Bob soon turns to addiction, as sex comes to dominate every aspect of his life.

In some ways, Bob’s religious identity holds him off from going off the rails sooner and possibly keeps him from turning to drugs and alcohol. However, the pressure of religion leads to many of Bob’s other problems as well. In Christianity, it’s understood that we are all born with sin and will continue to sin in spite of our greatest efforts to do otherwise. This implied failure of the spirit, even before it has any power of autonomy, works its way into Bob’s duplicitous double life. As does the church’s insistence that some sins are best left unspoken, which harbours an environment that only furthers Bob’s secrecy. 

In some ways, Bob’s particular affinity for photography helps him maintain a distance from the moral sins he commits. Almost more so than he enjoys sex, he enjoys watching it after the fact. As the years pass, Bob’s interaction with his image as something other than himself leads him down a path of increased alienation, as he struggles with the line between public and private life. Since Bob views his real self as the one on screen, he makes false equivalencies about his sexual identity being his entire identity, which leads him to sabotage opportunities and relationships. 

The weary desperation at the heart of Auto Focus maintains much of the mystery as to the cause of Bob’s problems. Kinnear plays Bob Crane as a sort of wispy “nice guy,” who overestimates his likability, struggles with boundaries and only becomes the powerful man he imagines himself to be through sex. Fame only aids Bob in acquiring women, and it becomes clear that he no longer lives in the real world, perhaps believing he has transcended some kind of moral law.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.