It would be easy to say all sorts of things about the production of Superstar, about how it's been one of those films that hard core film geeks talk about, about how it presaged Haynes' major themes throughout his career, about how it was one of the most significant films held back from public view, about bootleg culture, about so many things, but I'm more interested in taking it as a message, delivered by a filmmaker working within a strange format.
The story is told only partly through the use of Barbie dolls. The story of pop music superstar Karen Carpenter is dark, heavy, and very painful to watch, and by simplifying it down to words delivered by plastic toys not only drives home the point about the superficiality of the entertainment business, and about American standards of beauty, but also that it really doesn't matter if these 'characters' are acted by humans or simple playthings. This is a story that requires no expression, merely the story, boiled down to syrup. The pathos is enough to carry us through. The really important parts are shot simply, or recorded versions of television ads, Brady Bunch episodes, shots of suburbia, and most importantly, discussion and text describing anorexia, specific events in Karen's life, and other elements that set her story in context. This alone makes the film into a near-masterpiece. It is an avant garde re-telling of actual events within a container that is not meant to be easily carried. This is a film that owes much more to art films of the 1960s than to the biopic or documentary.
Of course, after a series of lawsuits by Richard Carpenter, all the known copies were destroyed. There are bootlegs, and the one I watched was on Vimeo, and there's one in the collection of the MoMA that can't be screened. It was a major happening in 1987 when it appeared, and those who got to see it back then have all said that it was an important film because it was so experimental in so many different dimensions. The film is not easy viewing; the footage is dark, the titles often unreadable, and the cutting more designed for jarring emphasis that clarity of story-telling. Still, all of that only adds to the impression it makes: a heavy impression.
Klaus at Gunpoint
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