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The year is 1970, and suddenly the nation finds itself asking the question, "What if, instead of the riots and assassinations, the protests and the drugs, instead of the angry words and hard-rock sounds, we were to hear something soft and smooth, and see something of wholesomeness and easy-handed faith?" This was the year that put the song onto the charts that made the Carpenters a household word.
--Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
The Carpenters have "only just begun" when a male narrator dryly delivers this speculative historical analysis. His somber voice is juxtaposed with flickering, pixelated period images shot off the surface of a television monitor: bombs falling, California governor Ronald Reagan, an American flag, a flurry of angry protestors, Richard Nixon with his daughter Tricia, a stock photo of a happy heterosexual couple, and the final triumphant moments of a beauty pageant. Immediately following this commentary and montage, the opening piano notes of" (They Long to Be) Close to You" knell on the soundtrack as the film cuts to the inside of a recording studio. The camera pans to show Karen in the booth, and just at the moment when she should begin singing, "Why do birds suddenly appear," she coughs instead. (1)
"Karen, are you all right?" asks her brother Richard, the musical duo's other half. "I'm sorry, Richard," she replies. "Goddamn, I'm really flubbing it up today, aren't I? I'm sorry, guys. I don't know what's the matter with me." "Just relax. Take a deep breath," Richard coaches. "Look, we'll just do it until it's right. Just do what I tell you, and it will be great." Karen responds, "I just want it to be perfect." And in her retake, it is.
This sequence appears early in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (dir. Todd Haynes, US, 1987), a forty-three-minute 16mm film that uses dolls to portray sibling supergroup the Carpenters' rise to fame and singer Karen Carpenter's struggle with anorexia. Since 1989, the film has been forced out of legitimate distribution and into an underground economy of bootleg circulation for copyright-infringing use of the Carpenters' music. Although this scene presents an opportunity for its audience to hiss at Reagan's appearance and to cackle at the plasticky good girl botching her signature song, the sequence also concisely presents the film's critique of cultural signification and its personal effects. The contrasts among the iconic, reshot images of American culture, circa 1970, are striking, whereas the dissonance between the degraded footage and its indexical capacity to portray history--and between the rough images and the purported softness of the Carpenters' sound--is perhaps more subtle. Superstar strips away the media's surface sheen and exposes the human frailty behind easy (if often melancholy) listening. As I will argue in this essay, appropriated music and images function expressively within the text to re-produce the mass-mediated context of the Carpenters' work and to re-present an affective cultural memory of the 1970s. Pirated videotapes of the film, by extension, inscribe a bootleg aesthetic that exhibits the audience's engagement in a clandestine love affair--watching, sharing, and copying the illicit text so that the viewers' reception of Superstar becomes historically, perceptually, and emotionally reshaped.
Superstar positions the sunny Californian Carpenters, whose image as performers promoted conservative family values, as something of an anomaly during a period of social revolt. They were, however, extraordinarily popular and scored twenty top-forty hits between their debut single "Close to You" in 1970 and Karen Carpenter's death by heart attack following an overdose of Ipecac syrup in 1983. Haynes's Superstar is at once a portrait of a historical period and a critique of popular culture's failure to respond adequately to it. Yet the Carpenters' popularity may in fact suggest that their conservative image was not anomalous and that instead, perhaps, our skewed historical perspective erroneously assumes the majority of the population to have participated in the counterculture movement rather than longing for a stable status quo. Or, perhaps most commonly, viewers find themselves in the ambivalent position of singing along to songs they might otherwise be ashamed to enjoy. (2) As personal tastes in opposition to historically and socially specific trends, guilty pleasures are generational, so that younger viewers are perhaps less likely to feel shame about liking the Carpenters' music--or feel its emotional resonance.
Haynes simulates the Carpenters' domestic and professional dramas with a cast of Barbie-type dolls (and occasionally human body doubles and talking heads) and presents cultural context for the group's fame and Karen's body issues. In the process, the filmmaker structures the narrative through the generic modes of star biopics, disease-of-the-week television movies, health educational films, and feminist documentaries. Haynes imitates and combines familiar film and television genres not to critique these modes but to use them strategically to present allegorical narratives--functioning as shorthand for expressing the characters' emotional states and for producing audience affect. Haynes's focus on body genres and intertextuality in Superstar presents themes and modes that have remained central to his subsequent films. Haynes not only combines disparate narrative methodologies but also textures the film by interweaving a variety of media and formal styles. His work in Superstar was influenced by the late-seventies and early-eighties shift from purely formalist experimental cinema to an avant-garde cinema of narrative experimentation used to explore social issues. (3) At the time of the film's release, it would have proven difficult to miss the connections between Karen's anorexic wasting and the emaciating effects of AIDS. I suspect that the more historically removed we get from the 1980s public panic over AIDS, the less the text will be read allegorically, so that Superstar will increasingly be seen as 'lust" about eating disorders and media culture.
The film opens with a black-and-white point-of-view shot--"A Dramatization," as it is marked--that presents Karen's mother searching through a house and finding a dead body lying in the closet. The abrasive bass synthesizer score and the mother's cries of "Carrie!" suggest a horror film. The film then quickly changes tone, as a male narrator's authoritative voice offers rhetorical questions that promise to be answered to make sense of the horror. Mundane images of homes in Downey, California, drift across the screen as the fancy, cursive credits appear and Karen Carpenter's disembodied voice sings the familiar, sad opening verses of "Superstar." Following the discovery of Karen's corpse, the song has a surprisingly chilling effect--until it shifts to up-tempo beats for the chorus, when the sad love song inexplicably turns celebratory, drowning out the heartache scripted in the lyrics of youthful love and desperate hopes: "Don't you remember you told me you loved me, baby?" This song's shift in tone presents a dual affect of melancholy and feigned joviality; these are the emotional tensions and transitions that appear throughout the film's shifts in genre and address, alternately conveyed with irony and sincere mourning. (4) The Carpenters' songs set the film's rhythm, and Karen Carpenter's authentic singing voice imbues the dolls with their much-acclaimed subjectivity. The film allows the audience to giggle early on at the dolls' stunt casting and joke moments--such as Karen's cough or punctuating shots of a human hand hitting a tambourine during "We've Only Just Begun"--before becoming progressively more tragic. Frequently the film operates in dual registers, as in the parodic educational film-within-the-film about anorexia, which is laughably didactic, yet conveys substantial information. Throughout Superstar, musical montages not only function as dress rehearsals for the complicated musical structure of Haynes's later film Velvet Goldmine (UK/US, 1998) but also, as in Goldmine, present the visualizations of music that provide the essential narrative exposition while exploiting the songs' emotive potential. (5) Without the melancholic sound of Karen Carpenter's sonorous voice and occasionally ironic literalizations of the lyrics, Superstar simply would not work.
Much of the fuss over the film has emphasized the novelty and, with a sentiment of skepticism undone, effectiveness of the doll stars. The doll scenes, however, comprise only about two-thirds of the screen time, and the "acted" scenes with dialogue look stiff in comparison to sequences in which the Carpenters' songs provide the primary soundtrack and inspiration for fluid montage sequences. Little critical attention has been given specifically to these musical montages or the use of appropriated footage during key dramatic moments throughout the film.
Although later writings on Haynes's oeuvre have alluded to the film's status as an underground classic and bootleg favorite, they have not attempted to account for its prevalence or the ways in which piracy has altered the text. (6) Rather than solely positing the dolls' emotive capacity, I argue that the film's wit and its affective ability are attributable to its use of the Carpenters' music, to formal and generic play, and especially to the material degeneration of rerecorded videotape dubs. This essay attempts to reconstruct the film's all-too-brief public life and pose a reading of its bootleg aesthetics. Videotape duplication of the work formally changes the text so that its thematic concerns--mass-media distortion and its relations to subjective and bodily breakdown--become rendered on the surface; significantly, this analog duplication also makes evident the cult audience's participation in reproducing Superstar.
For All I Know
Superstar's reception has been significantly influenced by the conditions of its exhibition and circulation, even more so since its withdrawal from legitimate distribution. Therefore it seems essential to revisit the film's history and perhaps correct some of the lore surrounding it prior to continuing with a reading of bootleg aesthetics.
Haynes's scholarly history--a bachelor of arts, with honors, in art and semiotics at Brown University in 1985--is referenced with remarkable regularity in articles on the filmmaker, as if to legitimize his stated intentions in academic publications and to peg him as brainy in popular ones. Less frequently cited, however, is Haynes's stint in the MFA program at Bard College, where he was enrolled in his first summer of studio work when he began producing Superstar, which he cowrote with friend and fellow Brown alumnus Cynthia Schneider. The film was funded in part by a grant from Art Matters Incorporated and was made using art-school and gallery resources in addition to the in-kind support of friends and family. As such, the film was conceived and produced as a student art project. …