26 January 2011

My first date with Superstar

I was a little hazy on the details but I knew that my mom and stepdad saw Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story as it was originally, haphazardly distributed.  So I texted the matriarch herself, who wrote back saying it was their second date, in a church basement, on "Samsonite folding chairs" (Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor would be very impressed by those specific details mom!).

I credit my stepdad for selecting the film because he has inexplicable viewing habits (if you only knew, dear readers, how many times I've seen parts of the Goop-Huey Lewis gem Duets in his presence). But I myself neglected to see Superstar until this weekend, which is inexcusable given its autobiographical and Haynesian significance. Not to mention the film commences with Karen Carpenter's death, exactly one month after my momentous birth.  

This was not the campy Carpenter biopic I was expecting (given that all the main roles are performed by modified Barbie dolls, I thought campy was the only possible mood). Instead, I saw a documentary on anorexia and a wider examination of 70's America, with Haynes' sharp eye cutting up cultural, political and social trends frame by frame.

The director's greatest strength here is editing--while only 43 minutes long, Superstar has as many cuts as a feature length film. He matches cuts ironically: a shot framing a pile of fried buffet food turns into to the first appearance of an Ex-Lax box. Even better, a topographical globe spins into a disco ball, spraying light over the band. That vision informs some of the great cuts in Far From Heaven, as when Julianne Moore turns from her kitchen straight into the revolving doors of her husband's office building.

The lighting in Superstar is dim but evocative. I'm think of a particular scene where darkness envelopes Karen as she sings, changing her orange-y face to the head of match, burning out. When presenting biographical tidbits on Karen, Haynes often uses black text over muddy background footage. Thus the information is hard to read against, say, a long shot of lunch meats in a grocery aisle. Only when more garish intertitles appear can we read them clearly, in the faux-hysterical style of Frank O'Hara exclamations in "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)."

The real heart of darkness is still the music of The Carpenters. "We've Only Just Begun" is what music might sound like if conceived and recorded by Stepford wives. I find that particular song the most uncanny and unsettling, matched perfectly to the frictionless walk of Barbie-Karen.

I know you have that most important question on your mind: can I watch this online for free? Yes (it's unavailable on DVD because Haynes did not get Richard Carpenter's permission to use the songs and, quite possibly, because Richard is portrayed as monstrous ass in the film).

No comments: