Plot: What’s it about?
I was seventeen at the time, and waited until it was released on DVD to check it out due to my worries of seeing such a sexual film in a theater. When I saw the film I had already watched every episode of E!’s True Hollywood Stories. This was not a conscious decision, just something that happened to every kid who grew up in the Nineties. Therefore, I was well aware of Bob Crane and his addiction to sex and pornography that tied into his murder. What I was not aware of at the time is how much time changes our perceptions of a film. Watching it now is a much better experience than watching it as an inexperienced youth with no hair on my chest. I was not capable of appreciating the film correctly at that age.
Greg Kinnear plays Bob Crane. The film begins in 1964 in Los Angeles as Bob works in radio as a disk jockey. He is also a talented drummer. His dreams were dashed when the rug was pulled out from under him upon the cancellation of the Dinah Shore Show. Bob is happily married to his high school sweetheart Anne (Rita Wilson) and has three young children. He is a loving and caring father. His family is Catholic and he is involved in the church. He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t drink. He does however keep pornographic images in their garage and talks his addiction to pornography off as a love of photography. Bob is offered a role on a show that takes place in a prisoner of war camp. Amazingly the show is a comedy, and one where he and his wife like the script. Despite the fact that he pictures himself as more of a Jack Lemmon type, he takes the role on Hogan’s Heroes. While on set one day he meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe – this John Carpenter is not to be confused with the iconic director.) John introduces Bob to the VTR – a prototype camcorder from Sony. John also gets Bob to start going to the occasional strip club where he fills in as a drummer. This leads to a complicated and symbiotic relationship. John needs Bob for girls and Bob needs John to work up the girls for him and keep him up on all the film equipment he can use to film himself having sex with random women. This behavior leads to a steady decline in Bob’s life and to his early demise.
I had not seen the film in fifteen years and my opinion had changed quite a bit. Maybe as a youth I was just very worried that my parents were going to enter my room and question my choices of what I viewed simply by association, but I did not rewatch this film after the first time that I saw it. Watching it fifteen years later, it has aged tremendously well.
One of the most striking moments in the film is when Willem Dafoe’s Carpenter says, “The Blonde – I’ve been working on her. The brunette’s not my type.” Kinnear’s Crane sternly replies, “I’m sure you’ll make do.” This is the type of insightful writing about a complicated relationship that makes this film so interesting. It is simultaneously a dark exploration into one man’s sexual addiction and murder, an entertaining and at times darkly funny look at a strange relationship between two men, and a caustic view of the emptiest side of fame. There are a lot of layers at play here, and the writing weaves them together well.
First and foremost, the acting is terrific. Greg Kinnear is unbelievably good as Crane. He slips into this role and nails the sly innocence that rolls into crass debasement. He is engaging and never fails to seem believable. He is likable and then he is a monster. Willem Dafoe is wonderful. I love him in nearly everything, but I would argue this is the role that he is the most affecting. He is so pathetic and creepy, he should have been nominated for an Oscar. There are solid supporting turns by both Maria Bello and Rita Wilson.
The script by Michael Gerbosi is based on a book by Robert Graysmith named The Murder of Bob Crane. Gerbosi does a fantastic job on the script, blending a strange sense of humor to the morbid story. It is really effective even if the comedy is a bit uncomfortable. Strangely enough, Gerbosi has not written anything since which seems like a shame. The film had the added benefit of having some of Crane’s children assist in the production to try to capture their father correctly, warts and all. I can’t imagine what a task that must have been for them.
Paul Schrader is provocative. His writing career includes films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. His directing career includes American Gigolo and Affliction. To my sensibilities, this is one of his better directorial efforts. Not everything he touches is gold, but this is a finely crafted film that deserves another viewing.
Overall, given the dark subject matter this film may be too grotesque and sexual for many movie goers. There is a lot of sex in this movie and, as Julie Kirgo mentions in the liner notes, it is tremendously underpriced. All of it serves the story. With that warning, a brave viewer will be given a grand tour of the worst side of man’s abilities to degrade women and capability to kill one another. It’s a shocking and profound film. Recommended, but not for the faint of heart.
Video: How’s it look?
Sony have provided Twilight Time with a great-looking new transfer in 1080p with an MPEG-4 AVC encoding and 1.78:1 aspect ratio from their own Sony Pictures Classics label that was a prominent independent distributor when I was coming of age. Sony continue to amaze with their attention to detail. This film looks fantastic, absolutely destroying the previous DVD release in terms of clarity, detail, and general picture quality. This was shot on film so it does not have the robotic look of digital prints. Cinematographer Fred Murphy does great work and moves the film from a peachy sensibility towards the darker decade after Crane has become famous. All said and done, I give this transfer highest marks in terms of fidelity to the source material.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Twilight Time have provided a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that similar to the video is superb. This track is not going to be the most bombastic, but the film uses the surround field cleverly to engross the viewer in the locations of the film. Angelo Badalamenti, arguably one of the best composers since Morricone, provides a good backdrop and basically stays out of the forefront of the picture allowing the visuals to take prominence. This is another pristine track from Sony. No issues to report here.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Audio commentary by Paul Schrader – this is a great commentary. Schrader explains his motivations scene by scene along with the more subtle ways in which the film changes.
- Audio Commentary by Willem Dafoe and Greg Kinnear – an interesting and conversational commentary from the two leads.
- Audio commentary with producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and screenwriter Michael Gerbosi – the third commentary rounds out the disk with the screenwriter discussing the film. Really interesting.
- Murder in Scottsdale – a well done piece on the murder scene featuring interviews with Bob Carle’s children, author Robert Graysmith, and several interviews with officers that worked the crime scene. Also featured are photos from the crime scene and video from inside the court room.
- Making Of Featurette – a brief featurette that looks like it was made as an EPK..
- Deleted Scenes – five deleted Scenes are offered with an optional director’s commentary. Most interesting is the first one which features an alternate opening to the film.
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Redband Trailer
- Isolated Music and Effects Track
The Bottom Line
Auto Focus has aged incredibly well. With excellent acting, a tight script, and Schrader firing on all cylinders, the film simply works. It is as provocative a piece of cinema as you are likely to watch anytime soon. This is really a good movie about despicable things. Twilight Time have ported over all of the supplements from the previous DVD, which are ample and worth checking out. The transfer from Sony is fantastic looking and sounding. Fans of the film can go ahead and throw away their DVD copy. While not necessarily an easy film to view, I think that this one is ripe for rediscovery. Highly recommended.