Though it's a forbidden film, Todd Haynes's work has become praised due to the well-constructed narrative around the life of superstar musician Karen Carpenter.
I don’t know why I always thought of Barbie as a tragic character, even as a young girl. All my friends would long to have the perfect Barbie life, but I never got that impression. Somehow, when I came about this short movie we’re going to talk about, it all made sense. Todd Haynes’s final grad school project from 1987 has become one of the cult classics that many film buffs refer to when talking about eighties film currents. His very original short bio pic about one of the most tragic superstars in the history of music, featuring Barbie dolls, is both heartbreaking, critical, and kind of disturbing. But what’s its message beyond telling a well-known story?
As one of his first important projects, Haynes went for a form of narrative that mixes both the classic narrative scheme of documentaries and something that was extremely innovative at the time, even if you think in terms of animation and set construction. He chose the story of Karen Carpenter, the woman who won the hearts of the public who then witnessed how their beloved musician’s life was slowly falling apart without really knowing why. We all know how she struggled with anorexia while living in a toxic atmosphere that’s generally the main price of fame. However, at the time, her fans didn’t really know what was happening, since eating disorders weren’t as talked about as they are nowadays. The fact that she died as a consequence of her disorder created such an impact that it moved people to start raising awareness of this lethal disease.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which was released just four years after the musician’s demise, starts with Karen’s mother's calling for her, leading us to witness the moment she finds the body in her room. From that moment, the narrative takes us to a scene of, let’s call her Barbie Karen, singing in the kitchen while her parents and brother, Michael, discover that she has a privileged voice. Now, according to the real story of the Carpenters, Karen was quite proficient in drums because she was a member of her high school band, and since her parents had pushed her brother’s career in music, they both had formed a band where she would only play the drums. However, as the movie shows, realizing that she could really sing, they decided to make her the lead voice.
We can witness at first hand how the band signed with a record company, and thanks to a great musical edition, we can realize that the moment she signed her contract, she sealed her tragic fate. Not only was she controlled by the contract they signed, but she was also a victim of her parents’ overprotective and controlling manners that ended up suffocating a girl with high dreams. There’s a very interesting scene in which the siblings are starting to have a huge success in America, and while having dinner with all the family, the mother just communicates her children that she and their father have decided that no matter how rich and successful they become, they’ll never move out from their house. As we’ll see, that sick dependence, together with the overwhelming experience of fame, only pushed her to a depressive state that triggered her disorder and ended up with her life.
As the film shows us, it all started after hearing a woman on TV referring to her as a beautiful chubby girl. As any young adult woman in the center of the spotlight, it’s easy to see why this affected her in this way, and why she decided to make something to change that perspective. What is impressive about Haynes's film is the fact that he doesn’t rely on explicit scenes to show us the process of her disorder. Instead, we see it just as anyone can see it with a person suffering from it. Haynes carved out parts of the Barbie doll used to portray Karen, so by the end of the film you can notice the terrible changes in her body.
Crude, sometimes satiric, and also quite critical, it's not hard to imagine why the film wasn’t that well-received by the family, especially by Karen's brother, Richard, who found it extremely offensive for her memory. Actually, it’s most likely that he didn’t really like his own portrayal as an abusive brother who didn’t care for her health or how she was feeling, as long as she continued to sing. There are at least a couple of scenes in which she just can’t go on, and he starts yelling her on how she will destroy his dream and career. It’s not hard to believe what Haynes portrays, since, as I mentioned, the one who was supposed to become a superstar, was actually Richard. Karen’s beauty, talent, and charisma completely overshadowed him, to the point that for almost all people The Carpenters are Karen Carpenter and the guy at the piano, or just her brother. Besides that, the movie implies that Richard is actually gay, which only provoked the anger of the frustrated musician.
The family sued the filmmaker for using their songs without permission, as well as banning any exhibition of it. However, although it’s basically illegal, cult film lovers have always managed to take a look at it, and so far it’s actually available in YouTube, although it’s uncertain for how much longer.
The movie, though kind of creepy, is a well thought and quite brilliant work. The use of barbie dolls isn’t just a decision taken by Haynes to make a statement. It has a deep message. Just like the Barbie doll, Karen Carpenter became a symbol of the American female perfection. But that image was just a plastic void staged persona, far from her dark reality. Moreover, it makes us reflect on the terrible objectification many women still suffer, but in the case of Karen, it’s also the infantilization of her persona. Not only her parents, but also the public used to see her as the younger sister of the family, the girl who was on her way to become a superstar, and that basically happened due to her controlling family. At the end of the day, she was just a doll that her parents, brother, and later on her husband, manipulated as they liked.
If you want to take a look at the short film, you can watch it on Short Of The Week
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