War Photographer, 2001. Director: Christian Frei. Photos: James Nachtwey. With James Nachtwey, Christiane Amanpour, Hans-Hermann Klare, Christiane Breustedt, Des Wright, and Denis O'Neill. A First Run/Icarus Films release.
Auto Focus, 2002. Director: Paul Schrader. With Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, and Ron Leibman. Sony Pictures Classics.
Appearing now are two very different movies about the life-changing power of photography in two men's lives. Christian Frei's War Photographer is about James Nachtwey, who, for the past 25 years, has documented several lifetimes worth of suffering in places like Ramallah, Kosovo, and Rwanda. Paul Schrader's Auto Focus is a biopic about Bob Crane, of Hogan's Heroes fame, whose evolution from family man to sex addict and pornographer ended with his 1978 murder in an Arizona motel.
War Photographer opens with combat photographer Robert Capa's quote, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Frei and crew accompanied Nachtwey to various hell holes for two years, as he went about his mission of documenting the horrors and extremes of misery that are some people's daily lives. Nachtwey seems reluctant to be on camera. In his few, grudging comments, Nachtwey tells us that he couldn't get Robert Capa-close without being accepted by the people whose tragedies he photographs. This acceptance, he says, comes from his respect for them and their situations.
Nachtwey decided to become a war photographer during the Vietnam war. Though powered by a strong sense of justice, he doesn't shy away from admitting that he began this work partly for a " sense of adventure and facing danger and feeling other people's authentic emotions " Over the years, that rush has given way to his sense of mission. Nachtwey also documents the living conditions of destitute peoples. Though his war images are no picnic, the real shockers were his photographs of skeletal African famine victims, of Indonesian children earning their daily bread by gleaning garbage dumps, and of pared-down, coughing sulfur miners of Kawah Ijen. Nachtwey balances concern over making money and his name as the "vampire with the camera" with the complicity of his subjects. "By allowing me there to photograph it, they're making their appeal to the outside world and to everyone's sense of right and wrong."
His work documents conditions whose existence shames us all. Nachtwey rightly says, "We must look at it. We're required to look at it. We're required to do what we can about it." The trouble is, War Photographer fails to engage. It's about Nachtwey, but not really, since he prefers to takes a back seat to his work. That leaves us a documentary about world injustices, but not really, since we get pictures without context, without identified subjects to follow and identify with, and without calls to action.
Frei's nifty microcams get us as close to the action as Nachtwey's pictures, but there's no techno-solution to get us close to the photographer. Interviews with other journalists provide few insights into the man who does this extraordinary work. Much of what the interviewees relate -- he's calm, composed, committed, never cynical -- is stuff we can dope out for ourselves, just from watching. Still, the film comes alive only during these interviews, particularly during the segment with war videographer Des Wright. This devastatingly candid Brit expresses his admiration for Nachtwey in one sentence and in the next reveals that, unlike the mission-driven Nachtwey, he has absolutely no idea why he does this work. Now there's a human.
HUMAN NATURE can be messy. In the late 1960s Bob Crane, a popular LA radio personality, took the lead role in a weekly TV comedy about a WWII POW camp, and the rest is unbelievable history. Everything the nuns and your parents told you about sex is true! Well, the stuff they told you about the coarsening effects of over-indulgence is true, anyway.
Crane was your average, Banlon-wearing, suburban father of three with a couple of minor obsessions: playing drums and taking pictures. The minor celebrity created from playing Colonel Hogan brought opportunities to indulge his obsessions. Always a collector of girlie mags, Crane is introduced to the swinging life by John Carpenter (Dafoe), a technophile he meets on the studio lot. Carpenter invites him to strip joints, and before you can say "Bob's your uncle," Crane is sitting in as drummer on stage. Soon it's a nightly diversion, and though his priest advises him to remove himself from occasions of sin, Crane barely puts up token resistance. With Carpenter as his Tonto, he makes a new conquest every night. His marriage crumbles when his wife Ann (Wilson) discovers the infidelities. In the midst of all this shagging, he courts and marries co-star Patti Olson (Bello), who accepts his extracurricular activities. Eventually, that marriage also dissolves, leaving Crane with only his buddy Carpy, who's in and out of Crane's favor like that lover you just can't make a clean break from, and a cast of thousands of bedmates.
But it's not just the nookie. Carpenter also introduces Crane to the new technology of video tape recording, leading the boys to document their sexological exploits. The powerful one-two punch of sex and photography formed a feedback loop that rendered Crane pretty much insensible to all other concerns.
Auto Focus begins with bright, sharp images that gradually become as grainy and dark as Crane's sex tapes as he descends further into sex addiction. It's a fascinating movie, with a no-fear performance by likeable guy Greg Kinnear that will provoke titters of uncomfortable laughter and as admiration. He perfectly captures the cluelessness of Crane, who tells Patti that he just "wants someone who gets me." He's completely oblivious to the fact that he doesn't get himself.
One approaches a truer definition of obscenity when weighing the graphic, unemotional sex of Auto Focus (Crane would've loved the Internet) against the murders and sufferings depicted in War Photographer. Too bad neither film truly succeeds in making its subject known to the audience. A thousand pictures, not enough words.
Roxanne Bogucka is senior editor, cinema, for hybridmagazine.com, where a version of this first appeared. Thanks to the good folks at the Landmark Dobie Theater, Austin, Texas.