The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz was the first film starring Bob Crane. It was released in 1968. By that time, by virtue of the TV show Hogan’s Heroes, Crane was already, for what it was worth, a “star.” The now dimly remembered Elke Sommer was his co-star in the film. After its release, she would soon become a Hollywood Squares stalwart: someone like Jan Murray, Charlie Weaver or Charo, whose stardom seemed always a matter of enigma.

In The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz she played the title role: an East German Olympian, a pole-vaulter. The plot concerned her defection, and had her vaulting over the Berlin Wall in lacy black underthings into the welcoming arms of Crane, who played a black-market operative of the United States.

You can imagine the humorous complications.

Five years later, in a Disney movie, Bob Crane played Superdad.

Five years after that, he was bludgeoned to death as he slept in a hotel room in Scottsdale, Ariz., after years largely spent doing dinner theater–and videotaping himself having sex with women.

Now Paul Schrader has made a film about the whole sleazy business, called Auto Focus. Schrader is the writer or director of Taxi Driver, Obsession, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Mishima and Patty Hearst, among other films. Like the last two titles, Auto Focus is a biopic, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, screenwriters of other biopics: Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man in the Moon.

Like the other Schrader films mentioned, Auto Focus is also a tale of sexual compulsion and moral dissolution. To those earlier films Schrader brought a very specific viewpoint, combining a fervent Calvinist fatalism with a reserved moral relativism. In those films the fatalism predominated. In this one, it is harder to tell which attitude holds sway.

Prefiguring Mel Brooks’ The Producers–and possibly prompting it–Hogan’s Heroes was a 1960s TV show about comical conflicts between the Allies in a German POW camp and their whimsical Nazi captors. Its tone was smug and ribald, if not unseemly. In Auto Focus, Crane himself, played by Greg Kinnear, expresses incredulity about the tasteless concept of the series that furnishes his big break. But encouraged by his wife (Rita Wilson), he accepts the role of Hogan.

From the start we are to understand that Crane has a fixation on porn that he displaces onto his work and onto an alleged interest in photography as a “hobby.” This displacement, its technical mediation, and its relation to American pop culture are the subjects of the film.

Early in the movie, in a conference with his agent (Ron Leibman), Crane says, rather pitifully, that he wants to go for the Jack Lemmon roles. Had he done so, he might have starred in ’60s films like Under the Yum Yum Tree or How to Murder Your Wife. In both, Lemmon plays a frantic but good-natured lecher. Lemmon was a great actor and Crane was not, but if you put Under the Yum Yum Tree and The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz side by side, you can barely tell the difference.

The same could be said for performances by any number of distinguished players in the slew of similarly lascivious movies of the period, each nearly identical to the others. The titles alone give away the show: Paul Newman in The Secret War of Harry Frigg, Robert Wagner in The Biggest Bundle of Them All, David Niven in The Impossible Years or Prudence and the Pill, Bob Hope in I’ll Take Sweden, James Garner in How Sweet it Is–even, lowering the bar of distinction a little, Rowan and Martin in The Maltese Bippy. Dean Jones in Any Wednesday should probably be mentioned here too, since he also, like Crane, pledged family values and migrated to Disney movies.

Though Auto Focus, curiously, does not allude to The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz, the point of the film’s first half is clear. A general cultural lechery of that time, posing as innocence of a sort, spurred or enabled Crane’s sex addiction. You can see it if you look at any one of the films named above. You can also see it in any rerun of Hogan’s Heroes: in how Crane leers, for a laugh, whenever a woman appears on the show. It’s on the surface, on the screen, in just about every shot.

Nor was this style by any means anomalous. It was clearly a definitive style of the period, well exemplified by the most wholesome figures of the day as well as the tawdriest. Schrader’s movie has little interest in Bob Crane as an individual–whose terrible fate really was quite anomalous. What Schrader’s interested in is what his material represents about cultural malaise.

To that end the film is really about technologies of porn. The advent of video, the movie suggests, made new forms of fetishism possible. Of course, film had already done this many years before. But those fetishes were largely public and collective; Auto Focus is about new possibilities of private representation.

In the film, Willem Dafoe plays John Carpenter, a friend of Crane’s, who made a half-hearted career of selling video technology to “stars” like Richard Dawson just before it became widely available for home use. The film makes much of the technological shifts of the era, from reel-to-reel to cassette, to color projection and remote timers, to beta cam. Late in the film, without comment, the stock shifts to digital video (or an imitation of its coarser textures), as if to comment on the pervasiveness and seeming transparency of the medium.

What Schrader emphasizes about video is its weird combination of immediacy and distance. It need not be processed, so you can look at it right away, yet it still renders reality remote. In Auto Focus, Crane seems nearly as taken with videos of his son’s sports events as he is with footage of his own sex acts. It is representation itself he fetishizes.

Throughout the film we see how Crane and Carpenter get off on being recorded during sex. Yet they don’t really get off after all, because they’re more turned on by watching their exploits later than they are by the sex itself. It’s all at one remove. The movie’s main concern is what happens to a palpable, material reality when it’s converted into a pixilated representation. Something bad happens, the film suggests, especially to sex.

Not that there was ever any question about that. Schrader’s movies have nearly without exception treated sex as something shameful, grotesque, fetishistic. Hardcore and American Gigolo, key works in the first wave of movies after the so-called Sexual Revolution, were both unflinching in what they showed. Each was imbued with an air of relentless disclosure.

Hardcore concerns an upright father’s descent into the maelstrom of the porn industry to find his missing daughter. Embodied by an unusually gouty and queasy-looking George C. Scott, the crusading father sees sensual horrors the likes of which he’s never dreamt. The hushed, fervid tone shows that the film’s maker never doubts that viewers too will be shocked.

Though the tony male prostitute played by Richard Gere in American Gigolo keeps talking about how much he likes giving women pleasure, there’s no pleasure to be seen. In Schrader’s work, sex is about penance, not pleasure. His fixed, earnest gaze on unchaste materials suggests that he only wants to understand, but he keeps running aground on his own revulsion.

In the ’90s, Schrader turned his attention away from sex to other kinds of obsession: Oedipal, in Affliction (about sons’ conflicts with fathers), or cultural, in Witch Hunt (about McCarthyism) or Touch (about faith-healing).

Auto Focus combines the cool satire of Witch Hunt and Touch–two interesting movies that almost nobody has seen–with the livid exposés of Schrader’s earlier work. The joke here is that the sex, while barely glimpsed, is always present in prosthetic forms–as cassettes, or machines.

A kinetic cultural chronicle, the movie starts out simulating a sitcom to show the smarminess of pop culture’s effort, in the American mainstream, to deal with the upheavals of the ’60s counterculture by filtering, channeling or repressing them. The film shows that the smirky, lewd, dirty-clean style of someone like Crane was a product of that time, and that by the ’70s, when sex had gone mainstream, the style was already an anachronism–although Crane, even in Superdad, was still riding that wave.

The score for the film by Angelo Badalamenti (composer for David Lynch’s films) at first mimics seedy lounge music, but as the plot runs down and limps toward death, it becomes more Lynchian to reflect the various moods. It ends expressing a nervous, sad entropy.

As Crane, Kinnear gives a performance as broad, precise and detailed as a caricature while still conveying the emotional temper of the character. He’s got the pop-eyed tics and purse-lipped simpers down pat, and knows just how to imply the kink beneath the blandness. It’s not so much an impersonation as a palimpsest of cultural styles–the performance seems modeled as much on Johnny Carson as on Bob Crane–and though it’s not meant to deepen, it encompasses every surface quirk the role requires.

Dafoe plays Carpenter as demonic, pathetic and ugly. The film makes no bones about its belief in Carpenter’s guilt for Crane’s murder, though nobody was ever convicted for the crime. The only sympathy the film shows either character is the kind you feel when you’ve got someone’s number. EndBlock