Saturday, April 23, 2005

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

I just finished watching Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an excellent short film from director Todd Haynes, someone who has quickly become one of my favorite directors, after seeing this, Far From Heaven and Safe. The man's a brilliant filmmakers, and one of these people who has a really tight knit set of films, which build on each other thematically, so when I see another film of his, I appreciate the others even more.

So, before you read this, I would highly reccomend that you go here and download the film. It's on bit torrent and will probably take a few hours to download. It's a fabulous film, and you can see it for free, so you have no excuse. Once you download and view, you can return, and check out my thoughts on the film. Seriously, it's worth the download.

Anyway, Superstar was the first film Todd did, and it was made for his masters thesis while he was still in film school, so he was making this with basically no resources and minimal budget, which is tough when trying to tell the story of a major rock personality like Karen Carpenter. So, what he does is use a lot of stock footage, and for his main cast he uses Barbie dolls made up to look vaguely like the real people they are representing. It's the sort of thing that sounds really goofy, and as someone who made a few movies with action figures years ago, I know that it doesn't always work out, but here, Haynes pulls it off, and you really care about these doll characters.

As a result of having no budget, Haynes used all the songs in the film without obtaining the rights for them, so Richard Carpenter sued him to keep the film from being distributed, and Mattel did as well. The songs are so integral to the film, there'd be no point in releasing it without them, so this is a film that is destined to remain underground forever. However, thanks to the internet, I was able to download and view it, and after seeing it, it's tragic that this film isn't available in a better format, because the quality hurts on the download, and also this is a film that cries out for supplemental material from Haynes, and background on the real Carpenter.

Putting aside the issues outside the film, which could make a great film of their own, we've got the work, which stands as an absolutely riveting 43 minutes. The film actually prefigures the 90s/00s Behind the Music culture that would develop in the years after this film's release. This basically is a Behind the Music parody before Behind the Music even existed. While the idea of this mockumentary biography was still pretty fresh back in 1987 when the film was made, but now it's been done many a time, from Beneath the Dome: The R2D2 story to Pi: Behind the Number by my own friends Jordan and Steve. So, this is a form that was already getting a bit stale five years ago, and that might lead you to believe that this film here would not hold up. However, that is not the case, because despite seeming like a parody on the surface, the film is actually quite serious and very dark.

The film has the feeling that few films achieve of existing in a world completely its own, where you're just transported away to a new and different place, one that in this case is quite unsettling. The film that most did this for me was Eraserhead, which freaked me out solely because the world was so different. This film is similarly unsettling, as the Barbies interact, and all other sorts of footage are cut in. Haynes just immerses you in Carpenter's world, and despite the nondiegetic titles, you're always in the story, and it's just an odd world to go to. Most big budget Hollywood movies have a finished quality, a sheen about them, but when you go to lower budget stuff, things feel different, and this difference can be unsettling. That's why I think all horror movies should be grainy, low budget things, because something like Blair Witch or even Texas Chainsaw Massacre the 70s version, has this creepy alien feeling, and that's what this film has.

As the film goes on, you're still aware that the characters are dolls, but Haynes does such a good job of making them characters as well, you can see beyond their plastic makeup, and into their frequently plastic personalities. As Karen goes along, her story is tragic and disturbing, the film never moves into parody, it's always dark and foreboding.

The device of using the Barbie dolls, beside allowing for a lower budget, ties in to the story's themes brilliantly. One of the main points of the films is that The Carpenters' music was this completely artificial, syrupy pop reassurance that had no relevance to the changing society that they were living in. It was purely escape from the disturbing issues the 60s had brought to the fore. I would disagree with the idea that music should be required to make social commentary, I do like the fact that Haynes makes The Carpenters so vehemently anti-political, preferring to create this folksy down home image that is a conservative backlash against the strife of the 60s. So, having plastic dolls perform this plastic music based on a constructed image is perfectly appropriate. I love how Richard always has the same cheesy smile and perfect hair, even as he is getting angry at Karen.

The other area that the doll is the perfect device for addressing is one of the film's primary discussions, the idea of societal pressure on women to have their bodies conform to a certain expectation, one epitomized by the barbie doll itself. The film is primarily concerned with exploring Karen's anorexia and it does a really good job of making us understand her. Throughout the entire film, Karen is manipulated by her family to create the image they need for their music, and she has no control over herself, so she decides to take control of her body, but in the process, goes overboard and develops the anorexia that is her undoing. Anorexia is portrayed as something that makes her simultaneously powerless and powerful, because this is the only area where she can resist what everyone else wants her to do, if she doesn't want to eat, no one can make her, and even they do, that will only deepen her affliction.

By the end, she recognizes what she's doing is a mistake, but she just can't stop, she is addicted, her anorexia which started as something she chose to do has become a disease that controls her. It's almost paradoxical that you're watching this doll, and really wishing that she would just eat something and beat this.

The film has a ton of parallels with the other two Haynes films that I've seen, Safe and Far from Heaven. All three are about women who are living lives they are not in control of, and engage in societally unacceptable practices to combat the imprisonment. Karen is quite similar to both Carol and Kathy in that she doesn't have to think for herself, she just follows the rules and has an easy life, but she needs control. For her, this comes in the form of the anorexia, which becomes a disease just like Carol's problems in Safe. Both Safe and Superstar are drawn from the Disease of the Week TV Movie, in which we watch someone suffer through an illness that could in theory happen to us. It's all about the main character's suffering from something they can't control, and watching how it disrupts their normal life.

Karen's problems are actually treated in a similar way as Frank's homosexuality in Far From Heaven. All the characters around them don't understand why they can't just stop not eating or being gay. It seems so easy, but that's to ignore the fact that certain behaviors are deeply held and to sublimate them to is to destroy oneself. Karen can't just eat, she needs to overcome the deeper problems within her, and for Frank, he has to confront the fact that he cannot keep lying to himself and expect to be happy.

I think Haynes' biggest issue is with showing how characters who seem to have it all may in fact be the most unhappy. All of the three main characters here are forced by society to do things they do not want to do, and it leads to unhappiness and reaction against societal norms.

The film makes amazing use of music, contrasting The Carpenters' smooth sounds with the trauma Karen is undergoing. There's an early scene where they're recording Close to You, and she messes up, and is angry about it. It's startling to hear her anger come in the middle of this sweet sounding song. A similar scene is when she is performing and collapses on stage in the middle of one of their songs.

The film uses a lot of avant garde techniques, cutting to found footage, a repeated motif of a hand tapping to the beat of the songs, but the strong character arc and great use of music keep the film emotionally relevant, even with the avant garde stuff. So, you can ponder the meaning of cuts, but that's not all that the film is about. I think the editing is great, and what it does is place Karen's story in the context of society as a whole, particularly with the editing of Vietnam clips, and the scene where they sing for Nixon.

If I have any complaints, it would be that some of the titles are difficult to read because they are the same color as the background. Also, as I said before, I take issue with the idea that doing this sappy type of music during a time of war is somehow ignorant of larger societal issues. Not every piece of music need address politics and society, sometimes a good song is just a good song, and The Carpenters did a bunch of those. But, I'm imagine if Haynes did an entire film about Karen Carpenter, he has more than a passing affection for her music.

Ultimately, the film is a harrowing depiction of a disease that destroys Karen, despite her best efforts to beat it, as well as a society retreating from the change of the sixties and moving into a more conservative time, a return to 'traditional values.' In that respect, the film is as relevant today as it ever was, and the sort of clean cut, sappy image has moved from music to politics. I'm tempted to say that this is Haynes' best work, because of just how dense the film is, with fully drawn characters presented in a short running time.

And it's a shame that the film can't be widely distributed. Music rights, while they do protect the artist, are so annoying, and as a filmmaker, I wish that some sort of deal could be worked out to let low budget films use the music they want. It's very frustrating. But, that has only added to the film's aura, this is the film they don't want you to see! And, considering the way he is portrayed in the film, I doubt Richard Carpenter is going to be letting you see this one anytime soon.


Anonymous said...

I am attempting to download Superstar but no one is seeding it. Could someone seed this torrent?

Thank you!

Patrick said...

Hey, did you ever end up getting the movie? What'd you think?

Marcelo E Mazzanti said...

Incredible! Just saw this great mini-movie, went to check IMDb's reviews and found yours there - which is the best of the bunch.

Hope your doing great,

Marcelo E Mazzanti
former fellow attp'er

Patrick said...

Good to see you again, or as close to see as you can get online. You should stop by ATTP, it's still going, not exactly going strong, but still going.

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pedro velasquez said...

With Barbie dolls as the principal actors,dominical costa rica tours Superstar portrays the life of Karen Carpenter and her battle with anorexia. Haynes never secured the rights to the Carpenters' music he used in the movie, and Richard Carpenter filed an injunction that kept Superstar from public release. Even without Carpenter's court order, the film would probably have been stopped by the notoriously litigious Mattel, the makers of Barbie.

Anonymous said...

One word: haunting. You tend to forget that barbie dolls are playing the parts. When the film opened on the 2nd scene, where Karen was alive with her family and you really saw the dolls for the first time, I was giggling uncontrollably. By the end I was horrified. This film deserves the masterpiece cult status that it has.

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