Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day 7: Superstar The Karen Carpenter Story

"Hangin' around, nothing to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down."

The Carpenters were one of those bands that achieved incredible popularity but were never viewed by mainstream music critics as anything but bland and lame. Karen Carpenter had a phenomenal voice, and as one character says in a fake talking head interview in the film, her voice didn't possess a trace of irony. Director Todd Haynes has built his career around taking risks and experimenting, not just with filmmaking, but with formula. One of his earliest efforts as a director is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and it set the stage for his future experimentation. Velvet Goldmine (my favorite film of his) is a glam rock odyssey that follows the same storytelling formula as Citizen Kane. Far From Heaven was a meticulous recreation of Douglas Sirk's melodramas of the 50s and 60s. In 2007 he cast six actors and Richard Gere to play Bob Dylan at various phases of his career in I'm Not There.

With Superstar he tells the story using a myriad techniques from stock footage, narration, fake documentary & most famously, Barbie dolls portraying everyone in the Carpenter family and some characters on the periphery. The film opens with her death and then flashes back to the start of their careers in 1970. Siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter cultivated a wholesome image that ran counter to most popular music at that time and reaped some pretty successful dividends as a result. Karen struggles with body image almost immediately, some of it attributed to a reviewer calling her chubby.

The film is constantly reminding us that anorexia is a very serious disease and one that is virtually impossible to "cure." Haynes places Karen's story squarely in the center of an examination of societal and cultural pressures on women to conform to a certain body image. Of course the biggest stroke of genius in this is using Barbie dolls as the "actors" as they are the very epitome of the body image that girls are forced by society to grow up trying to live up to. The film should be seen for it's contextualizing of the disease in the framework of a musical biopic, and should be required viewing for anyone raising a daughter in this country.

The big issue with the film not being able to be seen has to do with the surviving member of The Carpenters, Karen's brother Richard. Now the official story that I've always heard about why this film couldn't be released is because of its use of The Carpenters' original recordings, but the more obvious reason once you view the film is its portrayal of everyone around Karen. Richard is portrayed as a control freak and a closeted homosexual, and her parents are portrayed as abusive, mentally and physically (there is a cutaway shot used frequently of Karen's dad spanking her).

This film set the stage for the rest of Haynes' career and all of the traces of his genius are on full display here. He even paid homage to this film in Velvet Goldmine by having Curt Wild and Brian Slade's confession of feelings for one another be portrayed by two girls playing with Barbie dolls that looked like the characters. It's always interesting to revisit a filmmaker's earliest works and see if any of that spark existed back then (I defy you to get through Killer's Kiss and tell me that Stanley Kubrick would become the greatest filmmaker that ever lived). Todd Haynes however is that rare filmmaker that, while he may not have had the resources at his disposal he would later have, still managed to make films that were true to films he's always been making.

You may have a hard time tracking down a copy of this film, but I recommend that you see it if you can (I have a copy if you live near me). Tomorrow's film will be Wes Anderson's 1995 first feature Bottle Rocket with Owen & Luke Wilson and James Caan.

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