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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

SXSW Dispatch: The Super-Secret Screening of Todd Haynes' "Superstar"

I was going to go back to my hotel and crash early after my final jury screening tonight, until I got a text message from a friend that the 9:30 TBA at the Alamo Ritz was something worth sticking around for — an exceedingly rare opportunity to see Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story on a 16mm print in a theater. Wow.
The film, one of Haynes’ earliest works, was made in 1987 and has been generally out of circulation (at least, outside of places like YouTube) since 1990, when Haynes lost a lawsuit for copyright infringement brought by Karen Carpenter’s brother and musical partner, Richard Carpenter. Superstar is both a re-telling of Karen Carpenter’s descent into anorexia and early death at the age of 32 in 1983, told through the use of Barbie dolls as the main players, and a darkly fascinating exploration of the perfectionism and cultural factors that lead young women to anorexia. What’s most tragic about the film, though, is that over 20 years later, we haven’t made much progress culturally with regard to the kinds of pressures — particularly in the media — that lead young women to starve themselves to death.

Haynes’ use of the dolls to portray the characters is particularly intriguing; as the 43-minute film progresses, the “Karen” Barbie doll’s face and arms are gradually whittled down, bit by bit, to reflect her physical deterioration. Haynes goes back and forth between telling Karen Carpenter’s story with the dolls and documentary-style interludes about the culture of the 1970s and medical information about anorexia, and it’s rather disconcerting to see the scenes where the Karen doll is “performing” — with plastic lips not moving, of course — the Carpenters more famous songs; the whole set-up lends an ironic air, particularly to darker Carpenters tunes like Rainy Days and Mondays.
It’s a dark and subversive film, and one can certainly understand watching it why Karen Carpenter’s family wouldn’t be eager to have it out there to begin with; Haynes explores aspects of the Carpenters’ family life that could be inferred to implicate both Karen Carpenter’s unusually close ties with her parents and her brother Richard pressuring her around their musical career in her downfall. There’s also a scene of an imagined fight between Richard and Karen in which she insinuates that Richard was gay; such an allegation would have been very damaging to the Carpenters career in the 1970s, which was built largely on the siblings’ clean-cut, wholesome image as an alternative to the 1970s counterculture.
It’s certainly not a flattering portrayal of the family, as Haynes does somewhat demonize Karen Carpenter’s parents and brother to bolster a sympathetic portrait of a young girl with an unusual and powerful voice who, perhaps in part because of her very public career in a field that emphasizes appearance — especially for women — became obsessed with controlling her weight and ultimately died a tragically early death as a result.
The film was introduced by Richard Linklater, and Haynes himself was onhand to do a post-screening Q&A, where he talked openly about the long legal battle over the film, which was in circulation for about three years before the lawsuit by Richard Carpenter essentially shut it down. Haynes discussed how, prior to the lawsuit, the film was being shown at clinics as an educational tool around anorexia, and said that in the lawsuit negotiations, he’d offered to limit the film’s use to such educational screenings — but that offer was refused by Richard Carpenter.
Richard Carpenter won his lawsuit over copyright infringement when it was revealed that Haynes had never obtained permission for the music licensing for the Carpenters songs used throughout the film. As a result, all copies of the film were supposed to have been destroyed, so the fact that we were even able to see this film tonight was pretty amazing. The screening was cloaked in a veil of secrecy; when some folks behind us in line asked a volunteer what the TBA screening was, she replied that it was a Todd Haynes film but that it was “illegal” for her to even say what the film was. I’m not sure about that, but there was certainly some nervous tension in the air leading up to the screening.
I have no idea how the fest pulled off getting the print or showing it, but man, what an amazingly bold coup — huge kudos to SXSW for pulling it off. I’m so glad I stayed out late tonight to catch it — definitely a highlight of the fest. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am one ecstatically happy film geek tonight.

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One of the great movies. Charles Bronson, great, Charles Bronson. Great movies. Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct, right? It’s not politically correct. But could you imagine with Trump? Somebody says, oh, all these big monsters aren’t around he’s easy pickings and then shoot.”
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