Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Even the title of Todd Haynes’ second film1, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, sounds like a gossipy documentary meant to gather as many wagging tongues as possible to go into the particulars of the dead singer’s life, all while avoiding the true depths of despair that led to her untimely demise from anorexia nervosa. Haynes incorporates elements of behind-the-scenes documentary into his experimental 43-minute film, his parodic usage of talking heads and clinical voiceovers adding to the intellectual exercise of his formal daring.

He even frames the film as if it’s a master’s thesis, a female narrator flatly explaining the movie’s message: “As we investigate the story of Karen Carpenter’s life and death we are presented with an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity. We will see how Karen’s visibility as a popular singer only intensified certain difficulties many women experience in relation to their bodies.” It sounds cold and calculated and speaks to the intellectualism inherent in Haynes’ filmmaking.

But the director also treats Karen Carpenter as a person, despite the obvious symbolism in his decision to reenact her life not with actors but Barbie dolls in an immaculately created mini-world. The split between his wry framing and his sympathetic view of Carpenter allows for a more rounded reading of the situation: Haynes’ intellectual remove gives him the freedom to extrapolate from Carpenter prototypical advances in a number of his core themes, while his ability to get in close and feel for a woman pulled apart at the seams keeps the film from becoming a condescending, sneering piece of avant-garde deconstruction.

In his minute recreation of the Carpenters’ family home in Downey, California, Haynes can exert total control over his recurring presentation of suburbia as a soul-rotting, reactionary prison (see also: Safe, Far from Heaven, Mildred Pierce). Karen’s fame sows the seeds for Haynes’ later meditations on celebrity and art with Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. Her anorexia, of course, shares a link with Safe in its depiction of debilitating illnesses brought on by social, not disease, vectors.

A dry humor is at work here: when Karen and Richard speak to Herb Alpert, head of A&M Records, Haynes intercuts their chat with stock footage of the Vietnam War, and he begins tweaking the sound until Alpert’s reassuring charm morphs into a sinister temptation by the devil. Black-and-white shots of food so garish it comes to resemble the chicken dinner in David Lynch’s Eraserhead leap into Karen’s subjective view of the food she denies herself.

Lynch actually proves something of a parallel for Haynes’ experimentation here, though we can also see how straight and humanely Haynes treats subject matter near to Lynch’s heart. Both dig into the twisted underworld of button-down suburbia, but Lynch prefers exaggerated, borderline Dadaist fever visions of the crazies dwelling among us. Haynes prefers to depict suburban life as antiseptic and cold, physically and emotionally isolating until everyone finds oneself trapped in a personal hell.

By using dolls, Haynes makes unmissable the notion that these people are being manipulated: the whole family is manipulated by money and the promise of fame, Richard by pressure to maintain his image, and Karen by seemingly everyone. Pushed into remaining at home by her controlling parents, Karen’s real life seems tailor-made to the creepy, stunted adolescence of the dollhouse aesthetic. Walled off from normal interaction, she has nothing to do but read about herself in the paper, which leads to an image crisis and her lethal eating disorder.

Positioning Karen as the victim of her domineering household seems a bit reductive, but the move pays off when her family’s attempts to cure her anorexia make matters worse. Unable to comprehend the severity of the psychological disorder, Agnes and Richard simply encourage, then force, Karen to eat, deepening the symbolic power of food in her mind. At one point, Richard callously worries that his sister’s gaunt frame will ruin their careers instead of focusing on his sister withering away, an effect Haynes’ subtly achieves by whittling at the arms and face of the Karen doll until it looks as if the plastic would snap like a twig if Haynes tried to reposition an arm.

All of this betrays a keen imagination and an outside-the-box approach that makes every element in the film unique and memorable even when it’s not altogether clear what’s going on. Haynes uses text on the screen to fill in gaps about anorexia or off-screen developments in the Carpenters’ professional and private lives, but he uses black text that would blur with the objects in the frame even if the film could be viewed in a pristine, remastered print instead of bootlegs circulating the internet. Formal techniques such as rear projection and montage feel different because of the singular staging of the film, so a shot of a toy car with rear-projected motion behind it feels unique when it’s been seen thousands of times. Likewise, a montage of the Carpenters moving ever higher into the pop stratosphere as close-ups of descending numbers on a scale chart Karen’s weight loss have a touch of invention about them.

But again, for all that technique, what wins out here is the sense of pain and loss of a young woman who didn’t deserve to die so young. Haynes does not gloss over the fact that the Carpenters represented the slick, pre-fab image of studio pop of the ’70s, a group manufactured to be a wholesome counterpoint to the decadent, self-destructive strands of punishing hard rock and coke-addled disco. Haynes does not play the truth of the duo’s own issues as grim irony, and by using the Carpenters’ songs (without permission, hence the ban of the film from distribution or screening), the director shows what a powerful voice Karen had, and how talent is talent regardless of genre.

Thanks to dedicated fans, Superstar can be readily found within seconds, but the illicit feel of watching a scratchy bootleg in a YouTube video only exacerbates the uncomfortable mood of the film. Barely visible and demonstrating a few sound issues that suggest Haynes’ did not regularly have access to good mixing equipment, Superstar nevertheless remains one of his finest works, perhaps second only to his masterpiece Safe. It is also one of the few times he has found a balance between his arch, symbolic approach and his occasional flashes of more emotive humanity. Perfectly timed at 43 minutes, the gimmick never wears off, and Superstar gives the viewer the space to contemplate the themes and implications of its harsh but sympathetic view of a woman’s tragic demise without monotonously beating us over the head with a message. No short film so completely captured its maker’s crystallizing technique just before he hit the big time since Martin Scorsese’s The Big Shave.

1 His first, Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, is even more obscure than the legally buried Superstar.