Saturday, June 30, 2012

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
last seen @ The Museum of Art and Design, New York, NY

Years ago, a close friend gave me a gift: it was an anthology CD of Carpenters cover songs. It wasn't as if I was a Carpenters fan; she just thought it'd be something I'd like. And I did. I was naturally familiar with a few of the songs, like "Close To You" and "Top of the World" (my mother always liked that song, as I recall), but hearing them with a bit of a harder edge was a definite improvement.

I vaguely remember the days of AM radio in the 70s. Riding in the back seat of my parents' car, fighting with my sister over the radio, those were the days of "soft rock," so to speak: Gordon Lightfoot and Olivia Newton-John and Anne Murray and The Captain & Tennille and Air Supply (my sister loved Air Supply). Every now and then I'll hear a song from that period on the radio and I'll go, oh yeah, I remember that, and I'll be a kid in my parents' car again, or listening to my sister's 45s again. It's not like I have any deep abiding love for those records; it's more that they take me back to when life was a whole lot simpler.

The Carpenters were definitely of this period, although again, I never had any great love for them. They were just what was on the radio at the time, just what my sister and I listened to. Her being older, she tended to be a little more discerning in her tastes, which I noticed as I went through her LPs. For me that wouldn't come until later, when I started making mix tapes.

I don't remember when Karen Carpenter died. Something like that wouldn't have been on my radar. (I barely remember John Lennon's death - but he was different.) As I got older, I turned away from pop music and towards classic rock and heavy metal, and singers like her mattered less to me.

Fast-forward to sometime in the mid-naughts. I'm visiting my friend Denise, and we're at her place, and she says she has this weird bootleg movie about the life of Karen Carpenter using nothing but Barbie dolls! I'm like, no way! and she's like, Way! So we watched it. Denise is awesome for lots of reasons, one of which is she's totally into weird movies. I forget where she said she got a copy of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, but she had it for awhile.

I was prepared for something campy and droll, but surprisingly, it wasn't that bad. It's not stop-motion puppetry like The Nightmare before Christmas or Coraline; one can easily imagine people underneath the camera shaking the Barbie and Ken dolls to indicate when they're talking, and there's some very limited manipulation of the arms. And it's not all puppetry either: there are images of iconic people and characters from the 70s, along with testimonials about the Carpenters from other musicians, and documentary-like facts about the duo and about anorexia in general.

What makes Superstar watchable is the editing, and to a lesser extent the atmosphere. The editing cross-cuts images, for example, of the Barbie-as-Karen with images related to her anorexia (Ex-Lax, a scale, salads) with a frightening intensity. A human actress stand in as Karen depicting her dead body. Dramatic music plays. The lighting looks like it's more dramatic, though that could just be the quality of the transfer. On one level, it's cheesy, but the fact that Haynes uses Barbie dolls makes it all seem... surreal, perhaps?

I remember learning about anorexia in school - probably in a health class of some sort, but it may have also been from reading a Judy Blume book (yes, boys read them too). Frankly, I'd love to know what it's like to be super-skinny, in a perverse kind of way; I've always been big and I doubt I'll ever get much smaller, but I don't think this is the way to do it.

I wouldn't call Superstar a masterpiece of any kind, but it certainly is an audacious piece of filmmaking, especially given the fact that Haynes used the Carpenters' music, and Barbie dolls, without permission. It's worth seeing if you're able to, although it's extremely difficult to find. I consider myself quite lucky to have seen it once, much less twice.

The Museum of Art and Design screened Superstar as part of a series celebrating the VHS cassette tape. This was my first time at the museum. It's relatively new, located in Columbus Circle in Manhattan, an area that has seen some dramatic changes in recent years. I took a brief look around at the rest of the place before the theater opened. It's not bad. It's comparable to places like the Museum of Modern Art or the Whitney Museum, only smaller. On one floor I talked to some artists-in-residence.

Columbus Circle is at the southwestern tip of Central Park, and as such, holds a few memories for me. When I was in high school, we'd often times come to this part of the park to play frisbee or hacky sack. Since then, the column of Christopher Columbus in the center of the roundabout has been renovated (though now it looks like they're fixing it again), the traffic lanes in the roundabout are smoother, and accommodate pedestrians better (including the remodeling of Broadway, where it's half bike lane and pedestrian walkway), and most of all, it's become a hotspot for the bike rental business. You can't walk ten feet without somebody trying to get you to rent a bike and ride through the park - which is a good thing, since more people are biking in New York than ever before.


  1. I was expecting this movie to be campy too. I mean, Barbie dolls! But it was so compassionate. I thought the drama was pretty effective as well. It was good enough at times that I'd stop fixating on the fact that it was all dolls. I'd love to see this again.

  2. The speakers at the screening drew comparisons to Haynes' Dylan "biopic," "I'm Not There," and noted how he takes such an unconventional approach to movies like this because no one can know the real person behind these "biopics," so why not take liberties?


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