I believe that at its heart "Auto Focus", the 2002 Paul Schrader film on the murder of "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane, is a very Catholic film. If you can separate the gratuitous nudity and strong sexual content from the overall story what you get is a devastatingly spot-on morality tale about the dangers of casually drifting into a life of error, or, as Catholics would call it, sin.
Crane, played remarkably well by Greg Kinnear, is above all a nice guy. Early in the film he winningly chirps, "Eddie Cantor once told me likeability is 90 percent of the battle. And we was right!"
Note he is not talking about being a good guy. He is talking about being a likeable guy. Big difference.
Crane's "likeability" opened the door to temptation as he slowly but surely threw himself into the near occasion of sin. "Auto Focus" unflinchingly documents this process and its consequences.
It's a fine film and I recommend it highly to those who can get past the sexual vulgarity. This description seems particularly spot-on:
This is a remarkable, delicate and disturbing film.
With its depictions of 60's and 70's lifestyles and
fashions and its brilliantly disquieting atmospheric
shift between the decades, the film is unquestionably
one of the most well thought-out period pieces to be
seen. But this is just the brilliant visuals of the
film. They underscore a far more interesting and
darkened theme. As an essay on man's descent into his
own personal hell of sexual addiction and societal
abnormality, "Auto Focus" perhaps stands alone. There
is a layer here, a seemingly nearly translucent one,
that is peeled back to expose something that lurks not
deep within us, but just beneath the polite exteriors
of our public personas. Given fame and money and a
partner in crime, Bob Crane wallows in his addiction
to sex, pornography and women.
The way the director contrasts the bright polyester leisure suit decor with the tired, dirty soul of America in the 1970s is nothing short of brilliant. The last half-hour is a visceral descent into personal darkness as revealed by the main character himself and the scenery that surrounds him.
As Crane is enveloped in this secular squalor, he seems to dwell on where he's ended up and how he got there. And he makes a rather cryptic statement about the meaning of the word orange.
This has always struck me as a comment of some importance.
As this interview with director Schrader reveals, the dialogue did in fact come from the real Bob Crane himself:
There’s a very interesting conversation that Crane has with his son towards the end about the word “orange.”
That came from Bob Jr., who overheard his father having that conversation with another man late into his life, when [he] didn’t quite understand what had happened. But Bob Jr. took it to mean that his father was at a point where he was trying to figure out some real basic sorts of things. That things had hidden meanings. So I used it there.
Here's the quote from the film:
The color orange. But what is it, really?
Yeah. But that's it. Just tell me, what is orange?
I don't know.
That's my point. You take it for granted. You don't think about stuff like that.
I believe I understand what Crane was getting at, and I'll tell you why.
Let's start by referring to one of my favorite scenes in literary fiction. It is from Walker Percy's 1977 novel "Lancelot". The book is set in corruption-plagued Louisiana and at one point Percy gives the best description of the very moment a childhood ends that I've ever read:
I can only compare it to the time I discovered my father was a crook. It was a long time ago. I was a child. My mother was going shopping and had sent me up to swipe some of his pocket money from his sock drawer. For a couple of years he had had a political appointment with the insurance commission with a "reform" administration. He had been accused of being in charge of parceling out the state's insurance business and taking kickbacks from local agencies. Of course we knew that could not be true. We were an honorable family. We had nothing to do with the Longs. We may have lost our money, Belle Isle was half in ruins, but we were an honorable family with an honorable name. Much talk of dirty politics. The honor of the family won out and even the opposition gave up. So I opened up the sock drawer and found not ten dollars but ten thousand dollars stuck carelessly under some argyle socks.
[. . .]
At the sight of the money, a new world opened up for me. The old world fell to pieces - not necessarily a bad thing. Ah, then, things are not so nice, I said to myself. But you see, that was an important discovery. For if there is one thing harder to bear than dishonor, it is honor, being brought up in a family where everything is so nice, perfect in fact, except of course oneself.
OK, so his dad was a crook and most of us can't relate to that, but what a riveting way to describe that moment in a child's life when he leaves one world and enters another. I remember my Ah! moment myself and I can still feel today how total the change in my perception was. It was the first out-of-the-norm bad thing to happen in our family, something all children unavoidably experience one way or the other, be it through the death of a relative or whatever. I distinctly recall feeling before the traumatic event that the world was specifically created just for me. Grass was green just so I could run through the green grass. The branches of the trees in our backyard were shaped as they were just so I could climb them. And so on. And then this thing happened. And in an instant the feeling that the world was made just for me and my personal enjoyment was gone, never to return. I didn't lose anything real or tangible, rather I lost an illusion. A pleasant, innocent illusion to be sure, but one I had to lose eventually.
Now imagine losing your world as an adult. Not just an illusion, but your very world itself.
Which brings us back to Bob Crane. Locked into a personal prison of sexual excess and compulsion, I believe Crane had an adult Ah! moment and it is reflected in his thoughts on the word "orange." Just as small children have a strong sense of the proper order of things, so too does a man. And here is a man who found himself so trapped in error that he had seen everything in his life fall out of place. He wants his world to have the natural order we all take for granted with the word "orange". His loss is no illusion. It's tangible. It's real. And it is caused by his own actions.
This is what sin does to us. When we sin things fall out of place. If we seek repentance and vow to amend our ways, we can restore our world and its natural sense of order once again.
But the incorrigble sinner will discover to his horror that after a while his whole world will spiral away from him. I recall times when my friends and I would hear about the perpetrator of some particularly heinous crime - a child molester, rapist, murderer, etc. - and wonder how he could do it. Not the crime itself, as we all know that human beings are capable of the most depraved behavior imaginable. No, what we wondered was how he could wake up the next day and tie his shoes, comb his hair, brush his teeth. You know... how could he do all those normal little things that regular folks do every day?
Well, Bob Crane answered that question. He can't. Not like he did before. The same applies to any kind of persistent grave sinner. The man who becomes consumed by his sins finds his world so knocked off its axis that he loses the simple certainty in life that can be found in the word "orange." You can't just take such things in life for granted. They don't just fall into place. That's all gone.
This is how completely destructive unrepentant serious sin is to a human life. This is how fully it warps the sinner's very existence. This is how utterly lost the man steeped in sin is.
It's really a very profound and quite shattering observation.