Part of our ongoing From the Videotheque Vault series, contributor Sean Duffy takes a look at Todd Haynes’ long out-of-print debut short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.
Todd Haynes, whose new film Carol opens at the end of the month, is one of the most accomplished directors of the New Queer Cinema movement that started in the 1990s. What’s most astonishing about Haynes, and sets him apart from his contemporaries, is that pretty much all of his films are period pieces. With the exception of his feature debut, Poison (1991), which is still partially set in the 1960s, Haynes has made a career out of tackling modern issues through the lens of the past.
Far From Heaven (2001), which garnered an Academy Award nomination for Julianne Moore, is set in 1950’s America, exploring issues of race and homosexuality in the same cinematic styling of classic Hollywood melodrama director Douglas Sirk. Safe (1995), which recently got a long needed remaster from Criterion, is set only a few years prior in 1987’s California, following a house wife who has become suddenly ill with an unknown “environmental illness”; Hayne’s take on the decline of the classic American wife, the culture of self-help and fad health crazes, and AIDS in America.
Haynes even took on the past in his debut short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987). The film follows the life of Karen Carpenter, from the discovery of her talent to the height of the Carpenters’ popularity, and finally to Karen’s unfortunate death from cardiac arrest, a bi-product of her anorexia and dependency on ipecac syrup, which induces vomiting.
Like most first-time filmmakers, Haynes had little budget to create the piece with the stylistic approach he wanted. To work around budget constraints, and to give the film an even more ominous feel, Haynes shot the film without actors. He used Barbie dolls. This miniature scale allowed Haynes to create numerous detailed sets and costumes, as well as giving him the ability to film complex dolly and tracking shots without needing a full camera crew. The film received tremendous praise and set Haynes in motion for the rest of his career.
Unfortunately, the film is no longer available to the public. Shortly after the film’s release, Karen’s brother Richard, appalled by the film, sued Haynes for not having proper clearance for the film’s extensive use of the Carpenters’ music. Carpenter won, and all remaining copies of the film were to be destroyed. MoMA has a copy of the film, but is not allowed to exhibit it. There are some versions of the film online, all of which are in near un-watchable quality.
However, Facets’ Vidéothèque does in fact have an original copy of the film in our collection, on VHS, and it’s available for rental. Thrilled to see we had a copy of such a rare film, I immediately checked it out and gave it a watch.
Using a borrowed VHS player, I watched the 45-minute short three times over the course of a week; while watching, I was completely aware of how privileged I was to see the film in its original format, in the best quality that will probably ever be available. The film itself is shot on video, and I can’t imagine it being shown in any other format. From the mass imperfections of interlaced video to the warm buzz of the audio, Superstar inherits every quality that VHS nostalgia strives to achieve, such as in our recent Resident Video Denton’s Pullout Couch (Ohm, 2015). Because of the image’s lack of quality and detail, the Barbies used almost appear to be real at times, which makes them all the more disturbing.
Superstar is a truly incredible film that dissects the traditional American family and stardom, and also, quite ahead of its time, takes an in-depth look at anorexia, how it works, what causes it, and how it affects those who suffer from it. It would be an irrevocable mistake if this film were to be completely lost for future generations, both as a wonderful piece of cinema and a reflection of the culture of the time.
Check it out while you still can.
Author: Sean Duffy is a writer, filmmaker, and performer. Last year, New City Magazine named him one of the “Top Five Emerging Chicago Poets of 2014”. He has one of those website things. This autumn he is the Marketing Assistant Intern at Facets.