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Movie Review: Auto Focus

My interest in censorship and media ownership probably dates back to my teenage horror movie loving days. There was nothing more aggravating than reading about all the wonderful gore shot for exploitive slasher films in magazines like “Fangoria,” but then having all the Grand Guignol excised out to win R-rating approval from the MPAA ratings board.

At the time it seemed a clear-cut case of bald-faced censorship. While the MPAA didn’t do the gore snipping themselves, the board’s wielding of the all-mighty R rating over filmmakers’ heads was in itself de facto censorship, forcing producers and directors to self-censor.

What’s interesting, though, and which I only discovered doing research for this review, is that according to Jack Valenti, the first president of the MPAA, he came up with the ratings system to AVOID forcing filmmakers to censor themselves (Valenti’s personal history of birthing the ratings board can be found here). The ratings were initially just supposed to be an advisory system, alerting people — mostly parents — to mature themes in certain films, which I’m perfectly fine with.

What the MPAA was only guilty of was not having the foresight to trademark the X rating like all the others. I suppose in a more naïve time, neither Valenti nor the people he consulted ever thought that movie showing actual fucking would be shown in legitimate, or semi-legitimate, theaters.

One of the first rated X film was the brilliant 1969 MIDNIGHT COWBOY starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Today, this comparatively tame film would garner only and R rating, and then only for the suggestion of sex, most notably just one scene intimating homosexual fellatio.

Then, there you have DEEP THROAT in 1972 with a self-applied X-rating and, soon enough, a full-fledged industry is born flaunting the “Triple X” content of their films. (Did any huckster ever try to sell “Quadruple X” films? And why go straight to “Triple X,” completely overstepping “Double X”?)

So, therefore, the digital blurring of a grainy blowjob in the R-rated AUTO FOCUS can be directly blamed on the porno industry … and HBO.

In a recent interview, AUTO FOCUS director Paul Schrader said that he didn’t think that his biopic of sex-crazed “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane was any more obscene than any given episode of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” and he’s probably right. “Sex and the City” can get absurdly raunchy, without even featuring any nudity.

However, “Sex” is produced for a pay cable network and the show isn’t confined by any broadcast standards or ratings system other than the producers’ and HBO’s better judgement. While the show can get pretty damned dirty, there’s actually room for it to be a lot dirtier.

First of all, there’s always that bizarre male/female nudity double standard in which women can be as fully naked as can be for however long on camera, but men’s crotches are completely out of the question. This is very strange particularly of AUTO FOCUS, whose main star really should be Bob Crane’s penis. But while we get some shots of a Greg Kinnear “stunt butt,” there’s not a “stunt dick” to be found in the movie’s almost two-hour runtime.

I can’t recall seeing any penises in “Sex and the City” either — aside from the assorted dildoes, I guess — but at least in the show the female stars are only asked to do nudity when it drives home a major point. For most of the sex scenes, whether it includes standard of bumping and grinding or fellatio, cunnilingus and, in one episode, ass-licking, the women generally remain more clothed than the male guest-stars, and star Sarah Jessica Parker has never appeared topless.

But still, the irony, then, is if Schrader’s R-rated version of AUTO FOCUS is aired on HBO, it will be less obscene than “Sex.” For example:

What I think to be the most outrageous, and possibly funniest, “Sex and the City” moment is when series slut Samantha (Kim Cattrall) has trouble gagging down her sex partner’s foul-tasting semen. The disgusted look on Samantha’s face earns Cattrall the status of an X-rated Lucille Ball.

But in AUTO FOCUS, a couple seconds playback of a B&W video of a Greg Kinnear body double receiving fellatio from an anonymous woman is completely pixilated out.

What’s the point of me dissecting all this? I don’t know, maybe I just like writing about blowjobs.

Regardless of all the sex, AUTO FOCUS is an interesting subject, but features an odd construction. Like most tragedies, the tragic hero has a change of heart at the end, but the script here is too abrupt and the film changes tone too quickly too late, moving from a pristine ’60s sitcom milieu to raw David Lynchian film stock in one cut at almost the film’s endpoint. And for a movie called AUTO FOCUS about a supposed “photography” nut turned amateur pornographer, the lack of Crane operating cameras is a peculiar omission.