[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: In all of his films, Todd Haynes takes elements of gaudy tabloid culture and warps them to his own purposes, because he sees—in the lurid stories about sexuality and decadence and violence that we like to tell ourselves, in the celebrity gossip rags and TV news and hyped-up movies—deeper truths about identity, gender, politics, entertainment and sexuality. Haynes finds, within the sensationalist and the melodramatic, a culture's vision of itself, distorted by a funhouse mirror but nevertheless evocative of the unvarnished truth. Or maybe the truth really is as strange as the mirror suggests: entertainers as plastic action figures, made to be manipulated and posed; sexuality as a plague, terrifying and mysterious; suburbia as a deadening cage for the emotions; the past as a manufactured façade, rendered superficially safe by the suppression (or ignorance) of all those impulses that go unchecked in the present; identity as malleable and fluid, the true self supplanted by endless masks and games. Haynes' appropriation of the language of media—the docudrama, the genre film, the educational documentary, all eras and styles collaged together in his cinematic blender—is an examination of the ways in which culture both disguises and probes the truths about individuals, their secret desires and fears and fantasies.
Haynes has so far examined these themes over the course of five feature films and a smattering of shorts, ranging from his suppressed short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) to his most recent feature, a kaleidoscopic semi-biography of Bob Dylan titled I'm Not There (2007). The fascinations and techniques that drive Haynes' work are apparent even in his obscure second film, Superstar (his first, Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, is even more obscure and difficult to see). On paper, the premise of Superstar makes it sound like a cheap gag: it's the story of the life and death of '70s pop icon Karen Carpenter, with all of the characters played by Barbie dolls and rendered in the style of a TV documentary. This description belies the film's true depth, its emotional impact, and its surprising insights into anorexia, the strange intertwining of music and politics, and the pressures that are placed on those in the public light, particularly women. Even in the lousy bootlegged copies that are currently the only way to see the film—because of the harsh but predictable legal responses from both Mattel and the Carpenter Estate—it's apparent that Superstar is a remarkable early work, an act of music criticism in film form, much as Haynes' later Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There would be. It points the way forward to the rest of Haynes' oeuvre, but it also stands on its own as a bracing, poignant look at body image and the rapaciousness with which America's entertainment culture can devour vulnerable young female performers.
Jason Bellamy: Superstar is an excellent launch point for a discussion of Haynes' career, not just because the short is one of the auteur's early works but also because it's perhaps the best encapsulation of who Haynes is as a filmmaker. In the film's focus on Karen Carpenter we see Haynes' fascination with celebrity and, in particular, musical icons. In its use of Barbie dolls as puppets we see Haynes' mastery of genre forms, his vivid imagination and his knack for examining the world through the eyes of children. In its focus on anorexia we see Haynes' interest in isolating human conditions, in the way things beyond our control—disease, sexual desire, skin color, etc.—don't just influence our identities but actually define us, shaping our visions of ourselves and how we are perceived by others. Superstar also reveals Haynes' curiosity for and identity with the female mindset. And, as a whole, Superstar demonstrates the intellectualism of Haynes' work, a quality that, perhaps more than any other, unifies both his filmmaking and his films, and that I'll argue is perhaps his greatest weakness as much as it might be his greatest strength. We have time for that discussion later. For now I'll simply wrap up this line of thought by saying that perhaps the only predominant characteristics of Haynes' oeuvre that Superstar, by itself, doesn't reflect would be his comfort with nonlinear storytelling and his penchant for specifically exploring elements of homosexuality (which isn't to imply that Carpenter's closeted battle with anorexia doesn't have overlapping themes with some of Haynes' explorations of what it means, or has meant, to be homosexual in America).
Superstar is also a fun place to begin this discussion because it might be my favorite Haynes film. I admire it for some of the things that we've hinted at so far: its creativity, mastery of technique and cogent social commentary. But maybe the thing I like most about it is its surprising emotional depth. I watched Superstar for the first time in preparation for this conversation—it was actually the last Haynes film that I watched or rewatched, which might be significant (more on that later)—and I don't think any other Haynes film has cut me so deeply for such a sustained period of time. Here's a film that came out 23 years ago, that uses Barbies as puppets, that I encountered in the aftermath of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's gonzo marionette comedy Team America: World Police (2004) and that I watched on YouTube, which has become the go-to forum for all things sophomoric, and yet Superstar is decidedly unfunny. I don't mean to imply that Haynes doesn't exhibit a wry sense of humor with the film, just that it's far from foolish, far from frivolous. It's a movie that breaks your heart. In recent years critics have been awed at the ability of animation to be—gasp!—solemn in films like Persepolis or Waltz With Bashir, as if animation is inherently funny. Superstar, by comparison, is something truly awe-inspiring—the manipulation of universally-recognized childlike toys to take on a very mature subject with a very cerebral sensibility. Let me be clear: Nodding back to our Pixar conversation, I'm not praising Superstar solely or even primarily for rising above a low bar of expectations, for escaping some genre ghetto of its own creation. Rather I'm attempting to point out that Haynes approaches the Karen Carpenter story in the most unorthodox of ways and yet creates a film so note-perfect that within minutes the Barbie doll puppet show approach doesn't even seem unorthodox. Or is it just me?
EH: I think you've nailed it. I've always been blown away by this film. It does pack quite an emotional wallop, which is surprising for a film in which all the characters are literally made out of plastic—introducing a sense of distance that's compounded by the fact that the film can only be seen in dodgy, blurry bootlegs on YouTube and the like. And yet there's no question that Haynes very quickly bridges this Brechtian gap, making us care about these characters and forget that they're Barbie dolls. After a while, we start thinking of them as people. In a way, that can be summarized as the film's radical agenda: to treat what could've been a subject of kitsch with respect, affection and empathy. There's an affinity between the Barbie doll and Karen Carpenter that goes beyond the most obvious level, the idea that we, as a culture, view celebrities as plastic icons to play with until we get bored. The Carpenters' music is also widely perceived as kitschy and shallow, as a symbol for the complacency and regression of the '70s, a criticism that Haynes acknowledges in examining the group's music. At the same time, he encourages a perspective that treats the woman behind the music as an earnest performer who wasn't some corporate shill, who wasn't responsible for the ways in which her songs were used as marketing material for conservative forces, who was more than anything a victim of a system that didn't care a bit about her personal health or self-image.
There's another obvious reason for the "casting" of Barbie dolls that goes along with this critique of media and culture: Barbie's status as a ubiquitous symbol of female beauty, female perfection even. Barbie stands in for a whole culture that encourages women to pursue unrealistic and unhealthy images of bodily "perfection," to spurn food, to shrink themselves down into stick-figure skeletons. By embodying Karen Carpenter in the form of an American feminine ideal, the impossible body of the Barbie doll, Haynes is ridiculing the absurdity of this pressure. The tabloids, represented in the film with sensationalist headlines that periodically splash across the screen, are obsessed with weight, with the female body. In a cruel irony, the same commentators who will call a female performer "chubby" will soon enough feign astonishment and disgust at the skeletal, anorexic form that results from her response to this complaint.
These are familiar problems, and familiar pressures—sadly, one imagines a similar film could be made about someone like Britney Spears someday—but Haynes dramatizes and humanizes these issues. As you alluded to above, the film is intellectual, but Haynes never loses sight of the woman at the center of this story. Therefore, when the film detours, as it often does, into pseudo-documentary segments about marketing, politics or the medical and psychological foundations of anorexia, there's a real human component to the recitations of facts and figures. This is made especially poignant in the scenes revolving around Karen's anorexia, as Haynes shows her family, well-meaning but pushy and controlling, reacting with anger to her anorexic habits, forcing her to eat, and praising her eating habits when she's "recovered"—all actions that, the documentary segment suggests, will unwittingly only worsen Karen's unhealthy obsessions with food and weight. This gets to the heart of how Haynes uses the language of the documentary in his films, taking the dry, objective stance of the conventional documentary and relating it to the human realities that lie beneath its facts and figures. He similarly deconstructs tabloid culture, adopting its rhetoric only to critique it, to demonstrate the effects of this exploitative entertainment apparatus on those trapped within it. Karen, for Haynes, is not just a celebrity, not just an anorexic, not just a singer, not just a symbol; she's a woman, and she's her own individual self.
JB: She really is. This is an effect pulled off in large part thanks to Carpenter herself, who we get to hear singing some of her greatest hits, from the upbeat "Top of the World" to the melancholy "Rainy Days and Mondays." I say "get to," because Carpenter had an absolutely remarkable voice, whatever one might have thought of her music. And by reminding us of Carpenter's grisly death at the start of the film, Haynes ensures that we see the songstress as a caged bird, rather than a pop icon spewing vapid lyrics; he focuses our attention on the emotions in Carpenter's voice, rather than those articulated in the pat melodrama of the music. Interestingly enough, whether the emotions of Carpenter's songs contrast her own mood or perfectly reflect it, the juxtaposition is always tragic. I think it's safe to say that a heartbreaking Barbie doll puppet drama couldn't be made about just anyone; Carpenter's story is inherently sad, and since her music is so recognizable we bring to the film our own nostalgia, even if hearing Carpenter sing simply reminds us of the way we were. (Wait, now I'm quoting Barbra Streisand. What just happened?)
Point is, Superstar is grounded in a specific reality, stirring us with images of Carpenter's era as much as Carpenter herself. It's amazing, for example, how well Haynes recreates those televised musical performances of the late 1970s that were so often shot on cold, modestly decorated stages, under medium light, with an inevitable mid-song cut to a profile of the singer in front of some soft, moody offstage lights. Beyond such intricacies, Superstar also incorporates references to Richard Nixon and Vietnam. Haynes reminds us that the Carpenters' fans idolized them in part as an antidote to something—a common theme in his work. Karen Carpenter was angelic purity bringing sunlight amidst the thunderstorms of a bloody war and the grim scowl of Tricky Dick. It's interesting then that, considering their dark secrets and tendencies for self-destruction, Carpenter and Nixon were more alike than anyone could have guessed. Though I agree that the use of Barbies illustrates America's unrealistic expectations about female beauty and our habit of treating celebrities like disposable toys, it also underlines the utter fantasy of celebrity iconography and idolization. Haynes suggests with Superstar that the Karen Carpenter we thought we "knew" was as much an invention of our own hopeful imaginations as anything we might have played out as children using puppets or dolls.
EH: I agree that Haynes makes good use of the Carpenters' music and era as well as the tragic story of Karen herself. If you'd told me a few years ago, before I saw this film for the first time, that I could be moved by listening to "Rainy Days and Mondays," I would've said you were nuts. But sure enough, Haynes contextualizes these tunes so perfectly that it's possible to get past the utter blandness of the music and writing to focus on Karen's unexpectedly nuanced vocals, which Haynes calls attention to through the in-film commentators. I said earlier that Superstar is a work of music criticism, among other things, and in fact it's one of the best pieces of music criticism in the cinema (Haynes has also made two of the others, and we'll get to them later). Superstar attempts to strip away some of the preconceptions that many listeners are likely to bring to the Carpenters' music, and the film makes it possible to embrace and understand what was worthy in their music, or at least what was worth considering.
What's interesting is that, as you imply, this openness to the virtues of the Carpenters' commercial tripe—and particularly to the quality of Karen's pure, warm voice—coexists with Haynes' rather harsh appraisal of the group's place within their musical and historic context. The film does pose the Carpenters as an antidote to something—an antidote, more than anything, to the fiery '60s spirit of rebellion, the constant questioning of traditional values, and the corresponding rawness and adventurousness that briefly inflected the popular music of the era. The film portrays the Carpenters as ushering in a new era, laying a thin carpet of smooth sounds over the rowdiness and resistance that had characterized the previous era in both popular culture and the wider society. It's a heavy weight to place on a single act, but they're a perfect symbol for this glossing-over of the past, this retreat into safety and security. If the previous era was symbolized by Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, literally and metaphorically, or Jim Morrison intoning drug-addled poetry, or the Stones celebrating "street fighting" and then getting the real thing at Altamont, the squeaky family image and unthreatening music of the Carpenters surely represented a clear alternative and opposition.
The film balances this strain of sociopolitical criticism against the emotional narrative of Karen Carpenter, treating the music simultaneously as a sign of the times, a musical and social regression, and yet, in the slight quaver and dynamics of Karen Carpenter's voice, also an indirect expression of the singer's behind-the-scenes dramas.
JB: One of the things that blows me away about Superstar is the utter confidence of the filmmaking, which starts with the boldness of the gesture (trying to make a somber drama using Barbie dolls) and extends to the skill of the technique. Using Barbie dolls in place of actors was, I'm sure, a financially prudent option for a young filmmaker at the start of his career, but it certainly didn't make Haynes' job easier. He couldn't rely on the skills of his actors, because they had none. He couldn't cut to a closeup of their haunted eyes, as he would numerous times in Velvet Goldmine, because there was no emotion there. He couldn't afford mistakes, because there was no one or nothing else to mask them. With Superstar, Haynes put the responsibility of the film squarely on his shoulders, getting an assist from Karen Carpenter's vocals but otherwise going it alone.
In that light, Superstar is a validation of auteur theory that lends weight to the suggestion by Hitchcock—one of the godfathers of daring technique—that actors are nothing more than cattle. Armed with his cast of inanimate players, Haynes finds emotions not in the faces of his characters but in his cuts and camera movements. Memorable is the scene in which Haynes quick-cuts back and forth between the face of Karen and the hand of a record producer who is reaching out for her trust. Effective is the Altmanesque slow zoom toward Karen and Richard Carpenter having dinner at a restaurant, our view becoming tighter as the tension of the scene rises, with Karen insisting that she isn't hungry and Richard pleading/demanding that she eat something. Also notable is the scene in which Haynes employs a slow pan that searches for Karen across her seemingly empty room as Richard calls out for his sister, only to find her face down on her makeup table next to a box of Ex-Lax. Given this mÈlange of techniques, I suppose Superstar could have come off like a class project, an exercise designed to teach a novice film student about the inherent effects of basic editing and cinematography. Instead, Superstar comes across like the product of a practiced filmmaker who, like Hithcock before him, understood the emotions of every scene just by diagramming the camera angles. Haynes' next film, Poison, would seem in some ways experimental. Superstar, by contrast, seems entirely assured.
EH: That's a great point. However unusual Superstar might be in terms of its non-human "actors" and some of its genre mashups, in other ways it's a marvel of classical filmmaking technique. It's also a pretty durable example of just how powerful classical filmmaking can be even in the absence of other conventional elements of film form, like the expressiveness of a good performance. In addition to the scenes you mention, I'm reminded of the one where Karen, after collapsing on stage, wakes up to find her family hovering above her, chattering about how they're going to cure her. Haynes shows the well-meaning relatives from Karen's point-of-view, their heads poking into the frame from every angle, and the sense of claustrophobia that Karen feels is palpable even though her face betrays no expression. Moreover, the smiling, motionless faces of her parents and brother add a creepy vibe to the scene, deepening the sense that Karen's lack of control over her own life is unhealthy and only getting worse. As we've suggested, it's remarkable how much emotional nuance Haynes conveys in scenes like this without being able to rely on the frozen faces of the Barbie dolls to communicate emotion.