11 December 2004 | Pedro_H
Believable - but tepid - exploration of a minor celebrities' slide in to bad company and sexual obsession.
Bob Crane was a well known TV face whose lopsided grin and cheeky-chappie personality took him to fame and (modest) fortune with the 1965-71 TV series Hogan's Heroes (a family safe rip-off the film Stalag 17); but like many that have passed before him, his human weaknesses - in his case towards free love, porn and sleaze - provided his ultimate downfall.
This is 1,000 word review that could go, exclusively, many ways: The most obvious would be simply to review the film as an entertainment piece, which while fair and valid, wouldn't tell the whole story. The second would be as an exploration of the moral questions raised, taking on the very nature of "addiction and obsession." A third would be to review the nature of show biz itself and how - like Crane - you can easily go from "flavour of the month" to being "last year's model."
In many ways the above debates are more interesting than the film itself: which while being both credible and interesting, never bursts in to full flame. Indeed it spends long periods not really going anywhere or doing anything other than following Crane and his self-styled "best friend" John Carpenter (not the famous director!) - played by the oddball part specialist William Dafoe - from one sexual encounter to the next.
(The filming of these sexual encounters, while true and unquestioned, adds nothing to my understanding of Crane himself. The act would have happened, filmed or unfilmed. Indeed I never did learn whether he had any REAL interest in photography - which he claims in the film proper - beyond using it as a device for gaining extra sex gratification. Equally how expensive is the early video equipment and his all-embracing sex hobby? Are these the only reason he is broke after six years playing the lead in a hit TV show? )
Some of this party-to-party time would have been better spent explaining the early life of Crane, allowing us to understand "where he comes from" better. Is he a classic case of someone who married too young and ended up spliced to his "mother?" And like real mother's they are always finding embarrassing items hidden around the house!
(However even this argument becomes devalued when you consider his second marriage - to a contrasting blonde libertarian sex pot - also ended in acrimony and divorce!)
Given that this is a film of "best guesses", mine would be that Crane never really had a proper teenage life (he came from a strict Catholic household) and wanted to live his out decades after the fact. This film wants to portray him as someone who was lead astray by others, simply because that is easier to explain than someone who changes course dramatically of their own freewill.
Crane was approaching middle age when he first met the techno-wizard (and fellow sexual traveller) John Carpenter, his sexuality and taste simply couldn't have been influenced by any outside parties so late in life. Outsiders could only have been facilitators to living it out. Nevertheless his wider actions show a curious lack of maturity, who else would skip off work on a prime-time TV show in order to play drums behind some cheap stripper?
Director Paul Schrader (of Taxi Driver fame) has obviously being watching a lot of TV movies recently and scratching his balding pate over how to cover familiar material (family man presented with temptation, rise and fall, wages of sin, etc.) without cliché. Not to mention filming what is unfilmable: The inside of another man's head!
He has come up with only partial answers and a few professional fudges: Starting with a very standard approach (complete with horrible "cold fact" giving voice-over about Hogan's Heroes) before slowly sliding in to the modern "creeping hand-held camera with filters" approach and technique.
(Something that works quite well with some productions, presumably because we are used to documentary and news being presented in this manner. Maybe we, subconsciously, mistake poor production quality with reality? Here it adds little.)
Greg Kinear does an excellent job portraying not only Crane the ham actor, but also Crane the daydream believer and sex junkie. While going a little glassy-eyed and unfocused is in the scope of most actors, Kinear never goes over-the-top while slowly losing the plot. He also remains strangely sympathetic while exploiting his own fame and position for sexual purposes: A male perspective, but all I have.
The film starts with Crane - the LA DJ - spouting the happy-go-lucky banalities that radio professionals go in for, before being further introduced as a bouncy "success story" who is "going places in radio-land." However he want to act and employs a ("touch wood") agent to find him the right part. The upshot is an unlikely comedy about an unlikely German concentration camp.
He is a non smoking, non drinking, church going Christian, who rushes straight home - post radio show - to his long time straight-laced wife and picture-perfect children. In other words, a great place to start a sexual and moral slide from!
Crane, like many empty men that stumble in to things that make their heart go boom-bang-a-bang for the first time, hasn't the wit and wherewith all to see the limits and short comings of their new found hobby. He didn't realize that not everybody took his easygoing view of casual sex and by not being selective he alienated people.
No one should die because they enjoy casual consenting sex or cheat on their wives, but Crane died never having learnt there was (and is) a life beyond cheap thrills and that your casual actions can hurt the ones you love the most. A simple message, but Auto Focus takes 105 minutes to get it across.