I attended Calvin College (now Calvin University) and I absolutely loved my undergraduate experience. My roommates became lifelong friends, my time as a student and researcher in the physics department was irreplaceable, and I fully utilized the breadth of a liberal arts degree to take courses like water polo and eschatology. Three of my most memorable experiences include:
- Dislocating my knee while attempting to kidnap my friend for her surprise birthday (I was an immature freshman…)
- Catching a bat and sharing a driveway with drug dealers living at 1916 Eastern Ave (Our landlord was Gary Butts…)
- Living with my grandparents for two summers (Seriously, they’re the best!)
But what is a university truly worth without celebrity alumni? The “four” most famous Calvin alumni (according to me) are:
- Kevin Chevalia who played Chance’s owner in Homeward Bound (this could be a rumor)
- Betsy DeVos (no comment)
- A tie between Peter Kreeft, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga (all highly respected philosophers)
- Paul Schrader (screenwriter & director)
Paul Schrader’s life story is fascinating. Schrader was born in Grand Rapids with Dutch heritage and raised in the Christian Reformed Church (like much of Calvin University’s student demographic). He wasn’t allowed to watch movies, snuck out to see his first movie at age 17, and soon became a movie fanatic. After graduating from Calvin, he got a master’s degree in film studies at UCLA. In LA, he wrote film reviews and picked up a cocaine addiction that dogged him for years. His star rose in the late 70s when he began writing screenplays for Martin Scorcese, including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Schrader then started directing films. Stemming from the repressed emotions of his strict upbringing, many of Schrader’s films were racy explorations of obsession and addiction–often through the lens of pornography. This “lens” is readily apparent in Auto Focus, a biopic that probes the descent of actor Bob Crane into an obsession with making pornographic movies. At the same time, Schrader has wrestled with faith in God throughout his career–even writing a seminal textbook on spirituality in film. Faith is a common theme in his movies, whether as a peripheral element in Auto Focus or as the central theme of First Reformed–a film on faith and doubt that some consider to be his magnum opus. While both movies have an unsettling vibe and leave an indelible mark, Auto Focus is the movie that stars Greg Kinnear.
Auto Focus (2002)
Since the movie tells a true story, I’ll use people/character names instead of actor names. In 1965, Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) works as a radio DJ in LA. He’s been happily married for 15 years to his highschool sweetheart Anne (Rita Wilson) and they have three kids. The family regularly attends Mass, even as Bob hides pornographic magazines in the garage. Bob’s been looking for his “big break” as an actor, and seizes the opportunity to play the titular character of Hogan’s Heroes–a sitcom set in a WWII PoW camp that (unsurprisingly) was very controversial.
While filming Hogan’s Heroes, Bob continues working as a radio DJ which results in long days away from his family. He soon meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who sells home video equipment from Sony. (Sidebar: it’s ironic that Sony Pictures Classics produced this movie considering what’s to come). John invites Bob to strip clubs, where Bob gets an unofficial gig as a drummer. After drumming at strip clubs for a while, Bob feels sufficiently guilty to meet with his priest but not to tell Anne or change his ways.
As Bob gains fame through Hogan’s Heroes, he acquires groupies. One night, John & Bob invite two girls back to John’s place and Bob commits his first affair. Bob falls headfirst down this slippery slope, as he & John start routinely bringing various girls to John’s house for sex. They photograph and film the encounters, excited to use cutting-edge technology to make pornographic home videos. Bob also starts an affair with his Hogan’s Heroes co-star, Patti Olson (Maria Bello).
Eventually, Anne discovers photographs of Bob’s sexual encounters stored in their garage and divorces his ass. Bob rebounds by marrying Patti, who knows about his sex addiction and is happy with an open marriage. They have a son together, despite Bob having gotten a vasectomy. (Sidebar: irl Bob let this son–Scotty–watch him edit pornographic videos. Now an adult, Scotty believes his dad was normal and sexually progressive. Scotty feuds with his half-siblings, who view their dad as a friendless, obsessive sex fiend. It’s wild but also profoundly sad). In 1971, Hogan’s Heroes ends and Bob’s now seedy reputation in Hollywood prevents him from landing another role. He takes to ‘Dinner Theater’, going on long tours where he & John continue to seduce women and make sex tapes. Bob gets a chance to return to Hollywood by starring in Disney’s Superdad, but the movie flops at the Box Office.
After this, Bob’s life rapidly deteriorates. Patti divorces him, his work is limited to guest star roles in TV series and game shows, and he uses his fading reputation to seduce women for sex tapes. Eventually, he tells John that he wants to stop and believes he can reconcile with his sons. Before he gets a chance, Bob is bludgeoned to death in a hotel room in Scottsdale, Arizona. John carpenter was the most likely suspect, but–in the era before DNA evidence–there was insufficient evidence to convict him.
Auto Focus is dark and filled with nudity. I constantly pressed FF and can’t recommend this movie to anyone. That said, the movie powerfully depicts addiction and its destructive effects in its outstanding cinematography, script, and acting. The cinematography marks Bob’s downward spiral by shifting from soft colors to hard light from the moment Patti serves Bob divorce papers onward. This, the viewer is meant to understand, is the point of no return. Two dreamlike sequences– when Bob starts his affair with Patti and when he prepares to cutoff John–further highlight the deterioration of Bob’s psyche and unsettle the viewer. Beyond this, the script’s biggest strength is what it omits. It never reveals the joy or ecstasy Bob gets from his sexual encounters. Instead–by highlighting Bob’s increasingly desperate attempts to seduce women, his petty fights with John, and his ceaseless craving to make more videos–the script emphasizes the all-consuming, destructive, and insatiable power of sex/pornography addictions. Finally, Greg Kinnear’s performance seals the deal.
Bob’s Boisterous Blubbering
Bob Crane is one of Greg Kinnear’s most iconic roles, discussed in almost every career–centric interview he does. This is for good reason. It’s Greg’s strongest acting in a biopic, better (albeit less family friendly) than Flash of Genius or Invincible. Greg’s acting spans a broad range here–as he transforms from a boisterous, optimistic family man to a blubbering, desperate man who’s lost everything. Greg has played both energetic and desperate characters numerous times, but this performance is more nuanced. In movies like Nurse Betty or Mystery Men, Greg’s desperation is a half-step from full meltdown whereas here Greg masks desperation with the delusion that he’s a half-step from normal.
Even as he sinks further into his addiction, Greg-as-Bob normalizes his transgressions and believes he can make an instant recovery. When Anne discovers photographs of his sexual encounters, Bob tells her all he needs is a little counseling. Later, Bob’s agent implores him to be discreet about his sexual liaisons while filming Disney’s Superdad, saying “sex is not the answer.” Bob gleefully responds, “It’s the question. Yes is the answer.” Near the film’s end, Bob tells John he can easily quit his sordid lifestyle and reconcile with his family–right after his family rebuffs his phone calls. Bob’s growing delusions of the normalcy of his lifestyle and an imminent career revival are perfectly captured by Greg’s mannerisms in these scenes.
There were also several scenes where Bob failed to see warning signs of his growing addiction, even as they were obvious to those around him. In these scenes, Greg’s facial expressions were excellent–bright eyes and a childish smile fill his face as he loses himself in day-lusting. For instance, as Greg-as-Bob discusses his new strip joint drumming gig with his priest at a restaurant, an attractive girl asks to take her picture with him. Greg’s gaze follows her long after the picture is taken, as the priest beckons him to recognize his problem. Later, Greg-as-Bob brings a new video camera home and makes movies of his kids. Greg’s face fills with guilty pleasure as he thinks of the pornographic applications of this new technology, as his wife looks on with worry.
Greg’s performance further included manic excitement (about home videos or sexual encounters), misplaced aggression (impulsively snapping at John), and a blubbering despondency (once the dinner theater and TV roles dry up). It’s a strong but certainly dark performance. Greg has joked that his kids will never see this movie (and I hope mine don’t either).
- At Calvin University, we were taught to identify the redemptive qualities in films. Fellow alum Paul Schrader may have forgotten this lesson, as his movies like Auto Focus and First Reformed follow anti-heroes on self-destructive journeys.
- A darkly powerful portrayal of sex addiction, Auto Focus tells the true story of actor Bob Crane whose promiscuity and obsession with making pornographic movies destroy his families, ruin his career, and lead to his death-by-tripod bludgeoning.
- Greg Kinnear gives a very strong performance as Bob, ranging from boisterous to desperate and filled with the self-delusional mannerisms of a man drowning in his addiction.
- Next-up: From sordid to inspirational, let’s watch Same Kind of Different as Me.
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