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The True Believer 

Righteous inquisitor Paul Schrader casts a baleful eye on celebrity and the perils of absolute selfishness

Wednesday, Oct 16 2002
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So here comes Paul Schrader -- father to America‘s craziest taxi driver and its unhappiest gigolo -- off to do the DVD commentary for his new movie, Auto Focus. He’s clad in a yellow polo shirt, s

“You have to be happy with that,” I venture, and he just shakes his head:

“Yeah, but he murdered my last one” -- a dud called Forever Mine that only Schrader really seems to like. “He stabbed it in the back and then kicked it and kicked it.”

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He flips the page and finds a favorable review of Todd Haynes‘ Far From Heaven.

“I’m really happy for Todd,” he purrs, then snaps the paper shut. “But I‘m even happier that my review is first.”

He clearly means it -- it’s been a long, long time since a Paul Schrader movie has been any kind of headliner -- but he‘s also putting on a show. You don’t survive as a maverick filmmaker for three decades without learning the value of providing colorful copy.

We‘d met a few hours earlier at a hotel on La Cienega where Schrader had just finished a morning of gang-bang-style interviews. He had squeezed himself into a business suit that clearly made him uncomfortable. (“I have a meeting later,” he said sheepishly, “and they lost my other luggage.”) In person, Schrader is thick, even bullish, with a goombah’s neck and broad German features -- he could star in a Teutonic remake of The Sopranos. Indeed, there is about him more than a whiff of the thug (when the waitress brings us bread at lunch, he instantly dunks a slice straight into the butter dish), and one suspects that a certain aggression is necessary armature in a film business mistrustful of brainy, rebellious directors over the age of 30.

Back in the 1970s, Schrader built his rep writing iconic screenplays about run-amok masculinity -- “You talkin‘ to me?” -- and was himself often notoriously out of control. Now 56, he has learned (as, say, his old running mate James Toback never did) that the bad-boy act can wear thin, especially in aging filmmakers who are no longer making hits. Still, Paul Schrader is not going gently into that good cinematic night. Even as most of his contemporaries have lost their sense of mission, settling into wineries or well-paid hack work, he remains a true believer. Schrader thinks that movies are obligated to grapple with life’s pulpy profundities -- sex, politics, madness, violence, the eternal wrestling match between the sacred and the profane.

This conviction pays off handsomely in Auto Focus, Schrader‘s most entertaining movie in years, which is garnering terrific reviews, playing prestigious film festivals and spawning talk of Oscar nominations for Greg Kinnear and co-star Willem Dafoe. It’s also serving as a launching pad for Schrader‘s next project, an Exorcist prequel, his first big-budget showcase in years.

A ’60s sitcom gone terribly wrong, Auto Focus tells the funny, sordid (“in a good way,” says Schrader) story of Bob Crane, who‘s best known as the amiable star of Hogan’s Heroes and the victim of a grisly murder with overtones of sexual kink. The movie charts the life trajectory of Crane, wonderfully played by Kinnear, from his days as a cool radio DJ with a fondness for photographing nudes, through his rise to dizzy TV stardom with its celebrity-bedazzled groupies, and into his grim final years as a warped has-been whose sex addiction had a visionary twist -- he was one of the first people on the planet to videotape amateur porn. Along the way, he plows through oodles of women, shucks two families and oils his queasy bond with John Carpenter (Dafoe), a fellow swinger and needy hanger-on. Awash in joyless womanizing (Schrader makes lovemaking seem about as appealing as gum surgery), the movie is less about sex than about absolute selfishness -- for Crane, it appears, other people scarcely existed. Like Nick Tosches‘ biography of Dean Martin, Auto Focus shows how all-American likability can mask inner bankruptcy. But Schrader also uses this story to offer a sly commentary on voyeurism, technophilia, changing ideas of masculinity -- Crane embodies the reductio ad absurdum of Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” -- and the pathology of a culture that goes ape over the mingiest of celebrities.

Much early coverage of Auto Focus has focused on the behind-the-scenes story of Crane and his family. When I ask Schrader about the legal battle between Crane‘s sons (from different wives) over the movie -- a topic covered at great length in both the L.A. Times and The New York Times Magazine -- he sighs and gives me a look suggesting that he’d expected better of me: “I‘m bored with the whole Jerry Springer of it all.”

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