2002 TIFF Update #4: "Transformations"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 9, 2002

One aspect that virtually assures a good motion picture is solid character development (sometimes referred to as a "character arc"). It doesn't matter if it's a mainstream movie or a festival special - any narrative-based film benefits if the characters are not stuck in stasis (unless, of course, that's the point). The most extreme form of character development is the transformation - where an individual begins as one thing, and, by the end of the film, is someone completely different. This kind of dramatic character arc is the most difficult one to pull of successfully (and the easiest one to screw up). Two films at the 2002 edition of the Toronto Film Festival manage this feat.

Auto Focus is the story of the rise and fall of actor Bob Crane. Just about everyone in America is familiar with Crane, or, more precisely, with his television alter-ego, Col. Hogan of "Hogan's Heroes". If every actor has a defining role, Crane's was unquestionably that of Hogan. The series opened on CBS during the 1965-66 TV season and was an immediate success. (Ironically, Crane almost turned down the part, fearing that his participation in a TV show with "funny Nazis" would be a "career killer".) "Hogan's Heroes" lasted for six years before taking its 180+ episodes into syndication, where it continues to play on cable stations to this day - 24 years after the tragic, unsolved murder of its lead actor.

There are countless rumors about what happened to Crane, all of them unsubstantiated. The purpose of Auto Focus is not to solve the murder, but the explore the conditions leading up to it. The movie suggests a suspect, but, as in real life, it does not offer a definitive conclusion. Veteran director Paul Schrader (the writer of Taxi Driver and the director of Affliction) has a penchant for looking at the dark side of human nature, and the opportunity to study Crane's success story gone wrong provided him with a perfect arena.

When the film begins, Crane (Greg Kinnear)is a disc jockey for KNX radio. He seems happy - he has been married for 15 years to his childhood sweetheart, has a delightful family, and attends church regularly. Then his agent brings him the script for "Hogan's Heroes" and Crane's life changes almost overnight. Fame is a heady tonic, but Crane is able to keep on an even keel until he meets audio/video salesman John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a seedy individual who befriends Crane and introduces him to late-night sex parties, the swinging circuit, and provides him with the equipment to film his sexual exploits. For a while, Crane is able to lead a double life - nice guy in public, sex addict in private. Eventually, however, things spiral out of control. His wife, Annie (Rita Wilson), leaves him. And, once "Hogan's Heroes" is cancelled, he can't get another job because his reputation is badly soiled. His sole friend remains Carpenter, who has leeched onto Crane like a parasite - in large part because of an unconsummated homosexual longing on Carpenter's part. (On those occasions when he tries to steer Crane towards gay sex, he is rebuffed. Despite rumors to the contrary, Crane was resolutely heterosexual.)

Two catalysts contribute to Crane's out-of-control plunge into the world of homemade porn and sexual addiction - his sudden success and his so-called best friend. Like a poor man who suddenly wins the lottery, fame gives Crane as many women as he could want. Like Satan in the garden, Carpenter is there to pluck the fruit and extend it as an irresistible temptation. Carpenter is a user. He clings to Crane because of his fame and because of his attraction to the actor. The relationship becomes unhealthy; however, when Crane recognizes it must be severed, Carpenter disagrees - possibly violently.

What happened to Crane is a tale that occurs with alarming frequency in Hollywood. Dig to the rotten roots of almost every untimely death in the entertainment industry, and you'll find some sexual element to the scandal. To Crane, there's nothing unusual about his sexual appetite. He claims that sex is healthy, and, since he is participating in it, he is showing himself to be a normal, healthy man. Not until it's too late does he realize the difference between "moderation" and "excess."

Greg Kinnear, who began life as a cable TV talk show host, has developed nicely into an actor. Here, he is given the most challenging role of his career, because he is forced to play the gamut, from aw-shucks good guy to a man obsessed by sexual gratification. Plus, there's the added burden of having to replicate some of Bob Crane's mannerisms. (Kinnear isn't a dead ringer for Crane, but there's enough of a resemblance that, in the absence of any pictures of the real Crane, he passes easily.) Willem Dafoe, who has made a career out of creepy characters, adds another one to his gallery.

Auto Focus is loaded with sex and nudity, as might be expected from a film with this subject matter, but Schrader manages to keep things at a level where we never sense a whiff of exploitation. There's as much here (no more, no less) as is necessary for the story to be properly told. The result is a compelling motion picture that illustrates an American tragedy and shows the transformation of a decent family man into someone whose struggles with addiction and whose association with the wrong man bring him to an untimely end, with no hope of retribution.

If that sounds bleak (even though there's enough humor to keep it from unbearably downbeat), consider Sweet Sixteen, the latest from British director Ken Loach, whose body of work blares like a warning trumpet to alert viewers to the struggles of the working class. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Loach's left-wing political views, two facts that are not in dispute: Loach never pulls punches and his passion is genuine. His films are filled with thought-provoking material, not meaningless rhetoric, and even the die-hard conservative will likely leave a Loach movie sunk deep in thought.

Sweet Sixteen represents Loach's most accomplished film since My Name Is Joe. It's an uncompromising movie that illustrates one of the most convincing personality transformations that I have seen in a recent motion picture. This change, from scrappy underdog to nearly conscienceless criminal, is achieved through small steps - a gradual eroding of morals and shifting of ethics. It's made all the more heartbreaking because the individual at the center of this transformation is a 15-year old boy.

Liam (Martin Compston) is bright, tough, and resourceful. While awaiting his mother's release from prison, he lives with his sister, a single mother, in a small flat. (This after being kicked out of an apartment he shared with his vulgar, nasty-minded grandfather and his mother's cruel boyfriend, Stan.) Liam's primary desire in life is to liberate his mother from Stan's pernicious influence, and he will do anything to achieve that goal. One day, he sees a trailer for sale and believes that if he can collect enough money to buy it, he and his mother can live there together when she gets out. But the trailer is expensive, and Liam will not earn enough to buy it by selling stolen cigarettes as cut-rate prices. So he decides to branch out - into drug dealing.

Liam is not a user, but he has no problem selling, once he steals a stash from Stan and his grandfather. The life of a dealer is not an easy one - Liam has to defend himself from those interested in getting his product without paying for it, and, as he becomes more successful, he draws the attention of major drug dealers in the area, who are interesting in having Liam join their organization. In a way, the film plays out like a twisted Cinderella story, with Loach showing the relativistic morality that exists in the lower classes. Becoming a drug dealer is a way out of poverty - perhaps the only way out, and its seductive lure (that of fast cash) is impossible to resist for someone in Liam's position. He never considers the "evils" of drug use and addiction. Those are irrelevant. For him, selling drugs is like selling anything else.

Newcomer Martin Compston gives a riveting portrayal as Liam, the anti-hero who captures our sympathy. Compston, like almost everyone ever to appear in a Loach film, is as unknown as he is effective. One has to credit the director for his uncanny ability to unearth such impressive star material for each new endeavor. Compston has a thick Glasgow accent, but the English subtitles placed on the screen by the distributors ensure that audiences will not get lost.

Eschewing melodrama, Loach is able to present Liam's story in a frank, straightforward manner that shows how easily it is for someone in his position to become sucked into the criminal world. There's also a surprising amount of humor, especially during the first half. (One line, about the "definition of initiative" is laugh-aloud hilarious.) Yes, this is a political movie (at least it has a political viewpoint), but, more than that, it's a character study of an individual who will not easily be forgotten.

Of course, it's possible for a movie to present a transformation that is not entirely successful. Usually, that's the case when characters are poorly-developed, situations are predictable, and relationships are presented half-baked. Such is the case with Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon, the disappointing follow-up to the director's debut feature, the overrated High Art. Like the earlier movie, Laurel Canyon comes across pretty much as a pretentious soap opera - a movie that wants the audience to believe it has more to say about life than the usual melodrama. Unlike High Art, however, Laurel Canyon is not exceptionally well-acted (with one notable exception) and the characters are far less interesting (again, with one exception.)

The plot is straightforward and predictable to the point of painfulness. Recently graduated Harvard students Sam and Alex (Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale, two Brits who have given up their accents for these parts) are moving to Los Angeles - he so he can do his residency at a local hospital and she so she can finish her doctoral dissertation on the sex lives of fruit flies. Their plan is to move into Sam's mother's house for a few weeks while house and/or apartment hunting. However, although Sam's mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), a record producer, is not supposed to be there, it turns out that she and her band are still struggling to finish their latest album. So Sam is treated to the embarrassment of introducing his fiancee to his "developmentally disabled" mother. At first, Alex is intimidated by Jane and her group of musicians. However, as the days go by, she finds herself increasingly attracted to them and their lifestyle. Meanwhile, an uptight Sam finds himself drawn to another resident at the hospital where he works. The path all of this takes is easily divined, although the ending is not.

Why not? Because there is no ending, at least not in the traditional sense. Generally speaking, I have a fondness for open-ended movies, but there has to be a reason for the lack of closure. Aside from Cholodenko's ego, there doesn't appear to be one here. She simply elects to conclude the movie with all sorts of ends left dangling. Being artsy, it appears, takes precedence over being satisfying. The basic stagnancy of Laurel Canyon's storyline allows the only real surprises to come in some of the quick snippets of biting dialogue. Many of the conversations, while trite in nature, contain quotable one-liners. Her skill with her characters' verbal agility is not in question.

The "lone exception" mentioned above is Frances McDormand. McDormand gives a delightfully loopy interpretation of Jane, the pot-smoking, sex-loving rock-and-roll mother who acts (and looks) years younger than she is. McDormand is a breath of fresh air amidst the obligatory performances given by Bale, Beckinsale, and Natascha McElhone. When McDormand is on screen lighting things up (and I'm not referring to a joint), it's almost possible to forget that she marooned in a storyline that's not going anywhere interesting.

Laurel Canyon, like the three-way sex it hints at, is a tease. It's self-indulgent and sudsy, not to mention fundamentally dishonest. The characters seem like they're on marionette strings, with Cholodenko as the puppet master. To a certain extent, this is true of every motion picture, but it becomes bothersome when it's noticeable. Moments were few and far between during this film when I wasn't aware that I was watching a movie. And, with an absorption rate that poor, there's no way I can recommend Laurel Canyon. The characters (especially Alex's) may have arcs, but I didn't care where they began or ended - or even if they ended.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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