Film Festival’s Riveting Fare

Trying to analyze the New York Film Festival is like trying to figure out why Central Park is always closed to traffic during the theater rush hour. Every September, the New York Film Festival returns with its arrogance intact, proud of its reputation for eschewing almost everything with broad appeal that might vaguely resemble entertainment, in favor of practically anything that is guaranteed to bore you through the floor. The annual broadside-that this is a bastion of artsy elitism and cinematic silliness organized by pretentious snobs who are allergic to anything comprehensible-is only partially justified. This year, the folks who brought us Björk myopically singing her way to the execution chamber while the audience howled its way to the exits have now made room for more diversified tastes. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but from what I’ve seen of the week ahead, the 40th New York Film Festival actually contains a few movies people might be able to sit through without a B-12 shot.

Don’t miss Auto Focus , Paul Schrader’s riveting, adrenaline-pumped shocker about the perverted life and sensational murder of sexually addicted Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear, bumping his career up a notch in a surprising striptease of a star performance). From the opening razzmatazz (pink cardboard letters and moving paper dolls, like tacky intros to old television sitcoms) and Vegas lounge-band arrangements behind the credits, to the crime-lab murder scene itself, Mr. Schrader captures the air-conditioned look and feel of the Hollywood dream factory.

Crane started in radio, spinning platters and interviewing guests like the Lone Ranger on KNX in Los Angeles. An outwardly conservative Catholic who doesn’t drink or smoke, as well as a dutiful husband and the father of three kids, he wants to be Jack Lemmon, not Jack Benny, when his agent (Ron Leibman) lands him a job in a comedy series set in a German P.O.W. camp strictly for laughs. Hogan’s Heroes was as lousy and tasteless when it premiered on CBS in 1965-hitting No. 1 in the ratings-as it is today in faded reruns, but it ran for six years and made the smooth, preppy Crane a household name. The rest, you might think, was showbiz history. But the rest, in actuality, was gruesome, dark and self-destructive-the kind of lurid fodder that trashy “E!” Channel biographies feed on.

Bob Crane was two personalities: a fresh-faced all-American guy in cashmere sweaters and penny loafers whom every girl wanted to take home to Mom, and a tortured, conflicted sybarite hooked on kinky sex, naked women and playing the drums in after-hours topless bars. The film is a neat balancing act that contrasts his popular public image with his weakness for undercover drugs and sex-an obsession that lured many dubious playmates, most notably a weirdo named John Carpenter, an electronics wizard who turned Crane on to the video equipment with which they taped their orgies. It was John who acted as his sidekick, bodyguard, pimp and traveling companion on a journey into darkness that eventually ruined Crane’s two marriages, wasted his career, diminished his savings, wrecked his health and cost him his life. After Hogan’s Heroes ended its lucrative run, Crane wound up touring cheap dinner theaters, undergoing penile-implant surgery to prolong his sexual prowess, swinging all night after the show and sharing seedy motel rooms with John, a leech who became increasingly dependent financially and emotionally. (There’s an implicit suggestion that Carpenter may have been a latent homosexual who was in love with Crane; one explosive scene shows the duo chortling over their erotic escapades on tape while the camera is on auto-focus and Crane discovers to his horror that the hand on his naked bum is John’s.) Clearly the decadence was spiraling downward, and the tension that developed between Crane’s massive ego and insatiable compulsion for sex and John’s inferiority complex finally led to violence. One night in 1978, Crane was savagely beaten to death in his sleep in a Scottsdale, Ariz., motel. The murder weapon was the camera equipment he used to document his own orgies. John Carpenter was acquitted of the crime. Four years later, he died of a heart attack. The case has never been “officially” solved.

With one of Crane’s sons as a technical consultant, Mr. Schrader takes liberties but leaves no doubts. It’s a vivid movie, with two juicy performances behind closed blinds that leave you awed. Greg Kinnear, often in jeopardy of becoming the male Debbie Reynolds, does a game job of showing sleaze in a button-down collar. He dyed his hair black, tinted his contact lenses and studied hours of Crane’s infamous porno tapes to become Bob Crane in bed and out. All of the prep pays off; he even looks dissipated. Willem Dafoe, by contrast, provides the perfect symbiosis. Playing a self-loathing sycophant with no identity of his own, he invests the creepy Carpenter with so much anxiety and sexual confusion that he becomes oddly sympathetic and three-dimensional. The Hogan’s Heroes cast members in the film are almost identical to the TV actors they impersonate. Rita Wilson and Maria Bello, as Crane’s wives, are excellent as two very different women who end on the same note of cynical despair. Those who don’t see the similarities in Auto Focus between the dangerous compulsions of pornography and technology will at least experience a first-rate director’s take on a second-rate American tragedy.

Another must-see is The Magdalene Sisters , a harrowing indictment of the draconian Irish convent in the 1960’s where hysterical Catholics, with the full authority of the church-controlled government, sent unwed mothers, rape victims and girls innocently accused of sexual misconduct to atone for their sins. Imprisoned behind walls that made the Victorian institutions of a previous century seem like royal day-care centers, the women were starved, beaten and worked beyond endurance by monstrous nuns who forced them to slave in primitive laundries to wash the stains out of the sinning masses, while the “brides of Christ” raked in money from parishioners who knew nothing of what went on behind the walls. Stripping their wards naked, shaving their heads, ridiculing their bodies, robbing them of their self-respect, denying them proper food and medical attention, and turning their heads while the girls were sexually molested by visiting priests, the Magdalene sisters did not deliver redemption to their “undesirables.” Instead of preparing them for holy forgiveness, these sterile old hags bred hatred and terror in their inmates and broke their spirit. For some, the only escape was the asylum-or suicide, which was considered the biggest mortal sin of them all. Thousands of women a year were in custody in workhouses like the Magdalene convent, until they were finally closed down in 1996. Yet no one from the Catholic Church has ever been prosecuted or held accountable for these atrocities. Despite the elements of a Dickensian horror film, the shocking conditions and events depicted here are completely true, and many of the women are still alive to tell their stories (a documentary called Love in a Cold Climate and a special report on 60 Minutes inspired this feature). Scottish director Peter Mullan has distilled the gruesome details of so much suffering into an effectively paced narrative. The indelible performances are still wrenching. Ruling her coven of witches in wimples, the great British actress Geraldine McEwan’s Sister Bridget is a greedy, sanctimonious sadist with a smiling face, pale as blancmange and lethal as arsenic. The girls whose stories form the structure of the film-Anne-Marie Duff, Eileen Walsh, Mary Murray and Nora-Jane Noone-are all piercing and memorable. Nothing is ever pushed to caricature in this grim picture of an Ireland the tourists never see. The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for, but if the rage over pedophile priests still carries salty wounds, wait till they get a look at this new and shameful scandal. Denounced by the Vatican and picketed by nuns at last month’s Venice Film Festival, where it won the grand prize Golden Lion, The Magdalene Sisters has now been bought for distribution by Miramax. The church is already putting pressure on Disney, which owns Miramax, to block this devastating film from ever opening commercially in the U.S. Undoubtedly, its inclusion in this year’s program is one of the festival’s wisest and most courageous decisions in years.

Other festival curios: Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary is not a film at all. It’s a badly shot talking-head monologue by 81-year-old Traudl Junge, the woman who served “evil’s purest personification” with dedication from 1942 until his suicide in the bunker, and who remained silent with guilt for 50 years. We learn that Hitler loved his dog Blondie, feared sex, devoted more time to menus than military strategy, and constantly washed his hands like Lady Macbeth, but there’s nothing here that hasn’t been documented already. In a related vein, Bertrand Tavernier’s Safe Conduct chronicles the often humorous travails of French filmmakers during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Struggling with damaged cables and power blackouts, taking refuge in brothels during British air raids, filming scenes by candlelight, sharing offices with the Gestapo, the memories of two feisty survivors make for fascinating nostalgia. The big names in French cinema in the 1940’s-Darrieux, Simon, Clouzot, Tourneur-are all present in a film that combines a passion for movies with a dedication to freedom and bravery under duress. Still, it’s a three-hour endurance test that would have been just as persuasive in two.

Festival veteran Pedro Almodóvar is back with Talk to Her , a rambling but richly textured ménage à quatre with two of the participants in comas. In the corridors of a Madrid hospital, a disillusioned journalist in love with a lady matador who has been gored in the bull ring and a bisexual male nurse who impregnates an unconscious ballet dancer turn to each other out of loneliness when their women become vegetables. It’s not a comedy. While his characters cope and flourish in their sordid lives, Almodóvar’s fertile imagination works overtime with enhancing “perks” that include florid flamenco guitars, stunning dance sequences choreographed by Pina Bausch, a pulsating live performance by legendary Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, knockout bouts of bullfighting, and a deliciously wacky seven-minuteblack-and-white dream sequence in which a naked man disappears into a vagina the size of the Carlsbad Caverns, never to be seen again.

A savory, deeply introspective performance by Jack Nicholson illuminates director Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt , an uneven film that probes the dreary predicament of a retired, middle-aged insurance executive from Omaha, Neb., whose life after Medicare consists of crossword puzzles, remote controls and a 35-foot Winnebago Adventurer for leisure travel. When his wife dies, leaving him to pass the hours alone, he heads for Denger to stop his only daughter (the marvelous Hope Davis) from marrying a sub-mental waterbed salesman with gold teeth (surprisingly well-played by a balding and unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney). The film detours abruptly in the direction of farce when Jack gets trapped in the Dogpatch home of his daughter’s crude, Percodan-dispensing mother-in-law from hell (Kathy Bates, with hot tub and fried grease). In the end, the only person he has left to write his troubles to is a 6-year-old orphan in Tanzania whom he adopts through a foster-care program. It’s the kind of thoughtful examination of insignificant lives you used to get every week on Playhouse 90 , but Mr. Nicholson gives it ballast, looking like an old Boston terrier on VIOXX.

In the “Whatever Were They Thinking Of?” Department, there’s Punch-Drunk Love , a desperately unfunny comedy by the overrated director Paul Thomas Anderson ( Magnolia ), starring the meathead robot Adam Sandler as a mindless doofus who wanders through supermarkets reading labels, hordes cases of instant pudding for frequent-flyer miles, and falls victim to a phone-sex racket. Moronic kid stuff, with contrived situations and a leading man whose monotonous voice and freaky, hamburger-faced charm elude me totally.

For the New York Film Festival, this is an eclectic menu. You can’t expect them to overhaul the entire kitchen overnight.