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October 28, 2002 07:54am
Paul Schrader's Bob Crane Film Not a Fan of Hogan's Heroes
Source: USA Today

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Yes, he has made a film about actor Bob Crane. But don't mistake Paul Schrader for a Hogan's Heroes fan. The film fits in with his dark earlier work.

"When the show came on, I was in college and involved in the counterculture and the anti-war movement," says the 56-year-old writer/director, whose beatnik chin fuzz belies his avuncular appearance. "So I regarded it, to the extent that I regarded it at all, as somewhere between offensive and unfunny."

He also is dismissive of the show's reputation as a taboo breaker because of its German POW-camp setting. "The Great Escape and Stalag 17 were essentially the setups for it."

As for doing another biopic, he's always turning them down. After creating such fact-based films as Raging Bull, Patty Hearst and Mishima, it's a case of been there, shot that.

So what drew him to Auto Focus, about the semi-rise and rapid decline of Crane, Hogan's top hero whose sexual misadventures almost certainly contributed to his still-unsolved 1978 death by bludgeoning in a Scottsdale, Ariz., hotel suite?

"Underneath the script (written by Michael Gerbosi), I saw something interesting, a kind of American midlife heterosexual version of Prick Up Your Ears," the 1987 drama about British playwright Joe Orton's dangerous liaison with an older male lover.

Here, Crane and his sycophantic pal John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, a Schrader regular who has appeared in movies that Schrader wrote and directed, Light Sleeper and Affliction) were two swingers engaged in what Schrader calls a folie A~ deux. They preyed on one-night stands by trading on Crane's celebrity and documenting the tandem encounters on tape. "Oscar and Felix make a porn movie," he says, chuckling.

All the while, Crane passes as an upright citizen and family man in the public eye. Says Schrader: "I'm just drawn to characters whose counterproductive behavior is exaggerated."

That downbeat thread runs through much of his work, from his 1976 screenplay for Taxi Driver to 1997's Affliction, which he wrote and directed. Though he didn't qualify for script credit from the Writers Guild, there are Schrader touches throughout Auto Focus. The lyrics of the opening theme, a ring-a-ding-ding ditty called Snap. ("A quick one in the saddle makes the blues skidaddle...") Crane and Carpenter's macho motto: "A day without sex is a day wasted." the moralistic stance toward self-destructive behavior with an erotic undercurrent, typical of the tone found in the director's American Gigolo, Hardcore and Cat People.

Schrader, who was raised in a strict Calvinist household and indulged in a hedonistic binge in the '70s as documented in the bible on filmmakers of the era, Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, relied on his own experiences to back up any speculation of what Crane would do in certain situations. "Did he go to that hippie party? I don't know. I do know that Tommy Smothers had those parties. I was there once."

For all the authentic artifacts of the era onscreen, from Sans-a-belt polyester pants to turquoise-blue kitchen decor, one moment feels jarringly unreal. When Crane and Carpenter study a homemade film on TV, a simulated sex act is obscured by pixelation. Certainly these guys didn't censor themselves?

No, but the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board had other ideas.

"I thought when I shot it that, it was going to be all right. Well, it wasn't. So I either had to cut it or blot it out. I thought it was important that the viewer knows that Bob wasn't shooting cheesecake. He was shooting hardcore close-ups. Of course, in the European print, we can very cheaply unblur the image."

Schrader says there actually wasn't much he had to change to earn an R. It all comes down to thrusts, he explains. The board members "talk about thrusts a lot. From what I could ascertain, about 2 thrusts is the max."

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