Slaves to the Grind


Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus and Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction are just about as clinical as their titles imply, and the titles themselves are nearly interchangeable. Either of these Skinner Box treatises on the human sex urge might have been called Compulsion to Repeat. Yet each in its way is weirdly nostalgic, approached from the perspective of the sadly hopeful pickup line “What are you doing after the orgy?” As the movie brat who substituted a regime of sex, drugs, and cinephilia for that of the pleasure-denying Dutch Calvinism under which he was raised, Schrader has one of the key backstories of his generation. He’s nothing if not self-aware, and in Auto Focus, which opens Friday (after showing at the New York Film Festival), he proposes Bob Crane, the blandly amiable, extravagantly licentious, and luridly murdered star of long-running ’60s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, as his secret sharer.

For tele-viewers of a certain age, the Crane story has built-in prurient fascination. Schrader didn’t write the script, but Auto Focus‘s sense of joyless transgression, not to mention its title, suggests a more personal investment. According to Peter Biskind’s gossipy account of orgy-era Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, ’70s Schrader was himself a hardworking hedonist, coked-up and partying down. “He loved perversion, but all sexuality in some way was a failure for him” is how fellow director John Milius characterized the man who had just written Taxi Driver and would soon direct Hardcore and American Gigolo; Milius might as well have been describing the similarly fallen Crane, who parlayed playing a P.O.W.-camp con-man on TV into a life of dogged sexual excess.

An actor whose uncanny ability to project fake sincerity may yet elevate his star, Greg Kinnear embodies Crane with a glibness tough as tempered steel. Everything bounces off this guy (except the tripod with which he is ultimately bludgeoned to death); there’s a ringing absence of inner life. A professional smartass who is secretly—or is it publicly?—a church-going Catholic married to his high school sweetheart (Rita Wilson), the filmic Crane is a model of sunny repression, hoarding a stash of nudist magazines in the family garage, until he meets his Mephisto in the form of Sony salesman John “Carpy” Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). Affixing himself to Crane’s vacuous hull, Carpy not only takes the sitcom star to strip joints, encourages groupies, and escorts him to orgies, he also introduces Crane to the wonders of primitive home video: immediate feedback, instant gratification, amateur porn.

Michael Gerbosi’s script rotely questions the pop cultural representation of a Nazi P.O.W. camp with a laugh track—the use of the term “Holocaust comedy” may be anachronistic (and inexact), but the unease occasioned by Hogan’s Heroes, which predated The Producers by several seasons, was certainly real. In Auto Focus’s sociological universe, the success of Hogan’s Heroes is meant to signify the “what-me-worry?” vacuity of American life. But Crane’s complicity in such moral idiocy is not the source of his sinfulness. Schrader is fascinated by more primal forbidden images. He clearly enjoys the part that stroke-books and compulsive videography played in Crane’s joyless swinging—if “enjoy” is the appropriate word to describe the opportunity for relentless sermonizing that Crane’s scenarios afford him.

Crane soon dumps his censorious wife for his more open-minded co-star (Maria Bello) and promptly makes a mess of that marriage as well. However, Auto Focus is not about human relationships per se, even as metaphors for confinement. Crane’s trap is what Jean Baudrillard calls the “hell of images.” Once Hogan goes off the air in 1971, the star is frozen in time and condemned to perpetual syndication. He performs the same hideous comedy in dinner theaters across America, before rushing back to the motel with Carpy to document their tawdry trysts, all the while insisting that he’s just having fun. In one particularly discomfiting scene, the two guys sit together side by side on the couch and appreciatively jerk off to the video replay of their most recent exploit.

Auto Focus, which could be considered Crane’s ultimate replay, is being spun as a comedy—and there is an amusing scene wherein the star conjures up a Hogan’s rerun as a means to score at a bar. Humor, though, is not Schrader’s forte. His view of character is too abstract and this sexaholic Lost Weekend is way too punitive—the celebrity version of Looking For Mr. Goodbar. The movie ends in oblivion with Crane still narrating from beyond the grave. Auto Focus doesn’t really go anywhere, but then neither does any form of obsessive-compulsive behavior—which may be Schrader’s point. The only cure for Crane’s affliction is death.

The Rules of Attraction satirizes college as a realm of subsidized, if not institutional, debauchery. Indeed, campus life exceeds Bob Crane’s fantasies of one ongoing dress-to-get-screwed party. Roger Avary’s crisp adaptation imbues the copious bad sex and general befuddlement of Bret Easton Ellis’s solemn, echt ’80s Bennington novel with a playfully obnoxious energy that is often funny and—unlike Auto Focus—almost fun.

As demonstrated by his attitudinous 1994 caper flick Killing Zoe, Avary is a practicing nihilist and a dedicated mannerist. The Rules of Attraction isn’t as hardcore amoral as Killing Zoe but it is cheerfully cynical and confidently tricksy. Avary freely rewinds the action, speeds it up, and splits the screen. Such flashy posturing necessarily extends to the movie’s cast—who are primed to act like rich, over-privileged college kids acting like a bunch of drug-abusive, promiscuous, BMW-driving “college kids.”

Adding a sense of teledrama run amok, the main degenerate, Sean Bateman—younger brother to the yuppie killer of Ellis’s American Psycho—is played by James Van Der Beek, still treading water in the show Dawson’s Creek. (Fred Savage, the erstwhile pint-sized protag of The Wonder Years, has a cameo as an undergrad junkie.) Van Der Beek’s long, angular face takes on a grim demonic quality as he drifts, hungry for freshman blood, from one campus bacchanal to the next. He’s complemented in this daisy chain of rejection by Shannyn Sossamon, the lanky clotheshorse who plays the virginal Lauren (the most improbably stylish co-ed since Ali McGraw in Love Story), and Guess? jeans model Ian Somerhalder, as the unhappily homosexual Paul—either of whom might be auditioning for a movie version of Ellis’s fashion-world epic Glamorama (reportedly Avary’s next project).

The Rules of Attraction has updated the novel to the present, but it’s still set in an artsy New England college (not unlike Ellis’s alma mater) where sex is cheaper than free (or less than zero), orgiastic theme parties prevail, and classes seem permanently canceled. Avary mines Ellis for several set pieces—most effectively the scene in which Paul and his rambunctious partner in crime (the scene-stealing Russell Sams) take a most diva-esque drunken lunch in some Plaza-like establishment with their fabulously clueless mothers (Swoozie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway). A dormitory suicide is treated as a soigné exercise in camera placement and set decoration, although Sean’s dope-dealing does provide the occasion for a bit of the mad violence that Avary has surely been itching to orchestrate all movie long.

Avary’s attempt to distill a straightforward, and even poignant, storyline from the Ellis miasma—Paul pines for Sean who yearns for Lauren who once went out with Paul—has the effect of making the action seem even crazier, and not because the movie, like the novel, ends in mid-sentence. The bizarre getups and frantic self-medication, the dorm corridors filled with writhing couples and predatory dweebs, the continual haze of misinterpretation all suggest an adventure staged in a mental hospital without walls.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, playing for a week at Film Forum in a new 35mm print, is the most pop film the great Russian filmmaker ever made. Adapted from the novel by Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, it takes place mainly in a derelict, haunted space station orbiting the enigmatic planet Solaris. As earthling scientists study this world, entirely covered by a great, roiling, apparently sentient ocean, the planet probes them—most spectacularly by materializing their repressed fantasies as they sleep. The breakdowns and bizarre hallucinations thus precipitated by human contact with Solaris have thrown the program into disarray, and an astro-psychologist is sent to the space station to investigate.

At the time of its release Solaris was billed as the Soviet 2001; in fact, it’s closer to Vertigo. On one hand, this is a movie shadowed by the notion of a failed scientific utopia; on the other, it is a love story about a techno Orpheus who briefly regains his simulated Eurydice. Speaking of simulations, Steven Soderbergh’s remake is scheduled for release next month.