Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Download From DVD-R from Illegal Art for $30, tax-deductible]

One of the great things about Seattle is the opportunities to see rare films. We’ve got the Seattle International Film Festival, one of the greatest film festivals in the country, The Grand Illusion, which shows great classic and obscure films every week, and the Northwest Film Forum/WigglyWorld, which not only has a couple of movie houses, but also rents equipment for people to make their own films. For a film person, Seattle is pretty awesome – especially since this is only the beginning of film-related venues and events; there’re lots more that I haven’t mentioned here.

Each of these programs their showings a bit differently; SIFF is pretty much how most film festivals go, with the whole submission for juries and whatnot – you know the drill, and if you don’t, it’s probably pretty boring, and you can imagine what it’s like. The Grand will alternate between themes-over-time (for example: “Three Sides to A Square: 3 Films of Don Knotts”, or the 3-week Blob-a-Thon, where they showed all of the Blob Movies) with other films they’ve been able to obtain. The Film Forum, however, likes to do short mini-festivals, made up of either a collection of shorts, or one feature coupled with a smaller collection of related short subjects.

One of these mini-festivals that I was able to catch was “Barbie And Friends” featuring Todd HaynesSuperstar: The Karen Carpenter Story; the shorts are either all or mostly all available at the Illegal Art site for streaming, download or on the DVD-R, but the headliner was Superstar, an excellent (if flawed) film. It’s the story of Karen Carpenter‘s death from anorexia done with Barbie Dolls. It had a great emotional pull, but there were a few technical issues with the film — for example, there’d be screens of text with information on anorexia, which, while informative, was incredibly hard to read. The text didn’t have any borders around it, and the colors he chose would blend in with the colors of the background, so the text would end up getting washed out — though that might have just been a problem with the print. Unfortunately, these text panels takes the viewer out of the film, as do the a clips of stock footage from the Vietnam War and different stock footage of a dead woman falling into a ditch and being dragged away. While it set the stage of the era, while contrasting the world outside with the light, airy pop music the Carpenters made, as well as draw parallels between anorexia/society/body image, but it struck me as a too-loaded image.

On a similar line, there are occasional interviews with people either about Karen Carpenter herself or anorexia in general, but these are all done with real people (meaning human beings, not dolls). I think the film would have been slightly more successful on this front had every person been replaced with a Barbie doll – keep everything else the same, the audio and the superimposed titles; just replace the photographs with those of dolls that look vaguely like the person. It’d help keep up the fiction of the setting.

But these are all very minor quibbles, and the film was very well done. There was a lot of great emotional pull; despite being played by dolls, the characters were real. It’s about the only film about anorexia I’ve seen that actually makes the anorexic sympathetic. Most of these types of projects — sadly, typically after-school specials or “very special episodes” — make the anorexic character shrill, shallow and paranoid without any attempt to humanize their struggle; if any people were steered away from anorexia, it was out of a desire to not be lumped in with these ninnies.

Haynes, on the other hand, actually decided to not only make Karen Carpenter REAL (admittedly, this shouldn’t be too difficult considering she actually was real); he also showed potential causes and what experiences and emotions she was dealing with. Her family (especially Richard) comes off as rather cruel and psychotic, and I am wagering this is why Richard sued to ban the film – officially, it was over the uncleared use of the Carpenters’ music in the film, though. (For the record, every bit of promotional material for this screening stressed that it was an unofficial screening of this film, so I would like to repeat that here as well — even though the screening was quite a while ago.)

This film is very powerful. It’s much better than you’re probably thinking; the Barbie doll gimmick is useful for getting people to want to see it, but rest assured that the film is actually very successful as a film and not just a puppet show. I cannot recommend it enough – after all, my handful of complaints about it are minor; anyway, I think this was Haynes’ first film, which excuses a lot of the rough technical and stylistic stuff – I wish my first shorts were as well done as this. And one final thing to recommend it: It’s got a lot of Carpenters’ songs in it, and I really dig them. I do not care if you think I am square for it.

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