Film Review – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Chances are, when you finally get to see that cult movie you’ve heard about for years, it’s going to suck. There are three main reasons for this.
1. The things that make a cult movie “cult” instead of “classic” often have to do with budget, acting quality, and out-thereness of plot. Sometimes things are so bad they’re good, but often, they are so bad they’re bad. I’m not saying that a low-budget, poorly acted/directed/edited film is destined to be crappy, but seriously, chances are high.
2. The people who like cult films like them for other reasons besides quality, so when they talk them up, you can never be sure what their criteria is. I know there are a ton of Herschell Gordon Lewis fans out there. His films are so tedious I end up wanting to gouge my own eyes out, but there are people who LOVE his stuff.
3. Sometimes anticipation is so much better than experience. Often I will hear about a film, wait for years to see it, and then be terribly disappointed because it can never live up to the hype. I felt this way about the Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, and I think if my expectations had been a little lower, I might have enjoyed it a little more.
I’ve been hearing about Todd Haynes’s second short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), for years, and have been kind of half-heartedly looking around for it, but didn’t really make much of an effort. I am a huge Haynes fan, but wasn’t sure tracking down someone’s early 43-minute film about the life and death of Karen Carpenter was worth my time. I found a link to the film on YouTube the other day, and decided to just sit down and watch the damn thing. To my delight, it was actually pretty good.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, is—somewhat obviously—the tale of Karen Carpenter and her struggle with anorexia nervosa. The film portrays her as a talented performer struggling under the pressures of a pop career, a smothering family, and her perfectionist, career-driven brother, Richard. She attempts to create her own identity, but finds that her anorexia is the only way she can control any aspect of her life: her parents don’t want her to move out and establish her independence, and her brother is only focused on work. She tries desperately to maintain normal eating habits, but in the end is unable to deal with her stress any other way, and her addiction to ipecac syrup eventually leads to her death. Did I mention that the Carpenter family is portrayed by 11.5” fashion dolls? (Think Barbie.)
Yeah, this film is kind of arty. I’m not against that per se—I went to art school, I get it—but I do like a traditional narrative that makes sense and allows me an entry point into the film. Movies that want me to view them as art objects cause me to get very bored. This film has a structure that might have been somewhat experimental in the ‘80s, but is fairly standard for true crime shows now: a documentary-like presentation about Carpenter’s life and anorexia combined with re-enactment scenes. It’s actually pretty interesting, and once you get over (or embrace) the whole doll thing, it’s pretty cool. Haynes uses a lot of great music from the Carpenters and other ‘70s artists (without permission, which is why this film is a copyright nightmare and hard to find), and the mix of live action, doll shots, and archival footage is pretty effective. It’s an interesting story told in an unconventional way, and I found it to be very watchable and engaging.
It’s not perfect, though. The quality of the video I saw was pretty abysmal, and I have a feeling that is not all a function of watching a bootleg of a bootleg. There are some scenes where the black titles are indecipherable over a dark background, and it looks like someone made Richard Carpenter look tan by coloring his doll with a brown marker. But, those are small points. My main issues with the film are when Haynes inserts his own obsessions and quirks into the narrative. Richard is portrayed as “having a secret,” which is generally read as Haynes suggesting he is gay. (As far as I can tell he was not, but secrets and homosexuality are themes that Haynes deals with in later films.) Also, towards the end, there are repetitive doll spanking scenes that have nothing to do with anything else. (This is another motif that will show up later in Haynes’s work.) I found these insertions to be distracting and mostly pointless. He also uses archival film shots of bombs, Nixon, and concentration camps, ostensibly to mirror or contrast with what is going on in Karen’s life and the ‘70s in general. Sometimes it works, and other times I am left wondering what the hell he meant.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is a mixed bag, but it’s worth watching. I can see the seeds of Haynes’s future movies, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, and even Mildred Pierce here. It’s a good early film, by a director who never fails to engage my interest. If you have a spare 43 minutes, they won’t be wasted here.
Final Grade: B+