Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
Bob Crane’s time in the spotlight began in 1965 as the star of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes and ended as the victim of an unsolved homicide at an Arizona hotel in 1978.
Auto Focus — Paul Schrader’s little-known 2002 biopic about Crane, which stars Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe — acutely studied how the life of someone paid to make America laugh grew relentlessly sorrowful and, ultimately, became destroyed by obsession and weakness. This was another thematically rich gem in Schrader’s filmography, which includes scripts for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Affliction (which he also directed).
The movie’s precise vision draws laughter, sadness and profundity all at once as it weaves American sexual mores, advances in video technology, dangerous impulses and self-awareness into one compelling thread.
Kinnear elicits an uncanny, semi-sympathetic reaction toward Crane, as he moves from sexual neophyte to connoisseur of debauchery. (One scene where he and Dafoe, as his pornography pusher, traded small talk while watching porn — unable to recall even small self-pleasures or physical excitement — created an emotional abyss.)
Auto Focus doesn’t pander to typical good-man-ruined-by-fame notions, as Crane’s celebrity merely creates opportunities for him to indulge his worst impulses. That’s why it’s not easily dismissed as yet another flashy trip down the Hollywood boulevard of broken dreams.
Crane dashed his hopes long before Hollywood ever got to them. Schrader compelled us to understand his sad-clown life — that a performer so skilled at instilling joy in others could be so painfully, and fatally, unable to find it in himself.