Superstar: Todd Haynes's banned Karen Carpenter movie is visionary

The Carpenters

Some films were made for the internet well before the internet was made for them.

Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is one.

Made in 1987, while the future director of Carol and Velvet Goldmine was completing his MFA at Bard College, the 43-minute curio – you can call it a short, but it has the narrative shape and scale of a feature-length biopic – was trickled through the film festival circuit the following year. Landing a lofty berth at the Toronto film festival, it fostered a select but vocal audience for its strange, beguilingly ragged form: charting the rise and fall of the anorexia-riven princess of oatmeal pop with a blend of archive miscellanea, artificial talking heads and, most crucially, a host of Barbie doll-enacted dramatisations. An exercise in patchwork postmodernism, Haynes’s film was decades ahead of its time: whether they know it or not, the video content creators of YouTube and Funny or Die are still working in its shadow.

That seems more obvious than ever now that Superstar and an contemporary viral phenomenon – 2014’s mesmeric Too Many Cooks, say – are dependent on much the same means of dissemination: online discovery through word of mouth, shared links and social media discussion. Haynes’s film may be nearly 30 years old, but it can’t be formally purchased or downloaded; even repertory gigs, such as a secret Lincoln Center screening last year, can’t be officially advertised. Just rewatching it for this piece, it took a dead link or two before I found a serviceably muddy transfer on an online video platform: cinephiles who weren’t around for the film’s first coming know it principally through the image-coarsening patina of bootleg distribution. The Damn, Daniel video appears coated in Hollywood lacquer by comparison.

Hardly any film-maker would choose for their work to be viewed in this way. Haynes certainly didn’t, though he knew he was on borrowed time when the film first came to prominence. Superstar predictably angered the family of Carpenter, who died of anorexia-related causes in 1983: it painted a nightmarish portrait of her home life and micromanaging parents, while true to his simmering queer sensibility, Haynes’s script insinuated that Carpenter’s brother and band partner Richard (by then married to his first cousin Mary) was a closeted homosexual. Richard Carpenter foiled Haynes on more banal turf, however, when he successfully sued for the film’s copious unlicensed use of their songs; it was withdrawn from circulation in 1990.

Yet in addition to enhancing an aura of cult fascination around Superstar – there is no film cinephiles are so resourcefully keen to see, after all, as one to which they’re denied access – its burial and subsequent, below-board disinterment oddly serves the film’s interest in the manufacture of celebrity myth. From its lurid, flash-forward introduction, assuming the perspective of Carpenter’s mother Agnes as she finds her collapsed daughter near death in her bedroom, Haynes’s film playfully but ruefully mocks the vapid, then-prevalent TV movies that packaged real-life misfortune for prim-time entertainment. “Why, at age 32, was this smooth-voiced girl from Downey, California, who led a raucous nation smoothly into the 70s, found dead in her parents’ home?” asks an unctuous voiceover figure at the outset, sounding for all the world like The Simpsons’ Troy McClure. Elsewhere, Haynes expertly sends up the tone and aesthetic of educational PSA videos: onscreen blocks of texts discuss the facts of Carpenter’s fatal eating disorder with dourly impersonal detachment.

The winking kitsch and stylistic distortions of Superstar’s storytelling – all the more distorted by the grainy restrictions of YouTube viewing, increasing the film’s sense of illicit artifice – thus allude slyly to popular culture’s very limited understanding of its most celebrated victims. It hardly seems more absurd to embody Karen Carpenter as an increasingly emaciated Barbie doll (Haynes chipped away at their plastic forms to illustrate her gradual deterioration) than to have her played by a workaday actress in a paint-by-numbers biopic.

Today, a film like Superstar might be made as a sustained, Team America-style gag for an off-colour comedy site, yet while Haynes is working in a vein of very rich irony, there’s not a hint of snark here. Wholly sympathetic to its tragic subject, if not to her grotesquely portrayed family, the film treats its singing, self-destructive Barbie both with compassion and a kind of reserved distance, acknowledging just how little we truly know about her. (Think to the eerily immaculate styling of Haynes’s secretly despairing female leads in Far From Heaven and Carol: perfection in his films is merely a surface to be cracked.) Far from disrespecting Karen Carpenter’s memory, presenting her in 12-inch doll form wryly nods not just to the still-rampant objectification of female celebrity and the infantilising actions of her minders, but to the dehumanising effect of the spotlight. We tend to talk of that glare as making stars bigger than life; in this still-thrilling, still covert-feeling film, viewed inauspiciously on a laptop screen, it makes them seem far smaller.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Guy Lodge, for theguardian.com on Thursday 11th August 2016 19.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010