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The months-long publicity blitz and box-office triumph of “Barbie”—which earned a hundred and fifty-five million dollars on its opening weekend, giving the director Greta Gerwig and the nascent Mattel Films the biggest début of 2023—has been a dazzling confetti blast of media total war, as inevitable as a bright-pink Abrams tank. It is a relief (if not a surprise, given Gerwig’s track record) that “Barbie” is also witty and inventive, a good rosé sparkling amid the usual summer-blockbuster sludge. But, to a certain slice of the Gen X cognoscenti, “the Barbie movie” will always and forever refer to a very different film, one both notorious and barely seen.
More than three decades ago, the young filmmaker Todd Haynes directed an all-Barbie cast in his short feature “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” which tracked the wholesome contralto’s Nixon-era rise to fame alongside her brother Richard and her subsequent descent into anorexia, which killed her at the age of thirty-two. “Barbie’s performance has been really acclaimed by fans across the country,” Haynes told Newsday, in 1990. “Mattel doesn’t really recognize that as a part of her career, and she did a really terrific job.”
Made in the summer of 1985, when Haynes was attending Bard College, in New York, “Superstar” situates its plastic actors on miniature, hand-painted sets. We see Karen and Richard onstage, in the studio, and at the White House, performing their smooth-as-syrup hits, and at home with their harridan stage mother, Agnes, and passive father, Harold. In staging and filming his doll-house mise en scène, Haynes (who co-wrote “Superstar” with Cynthia Schneider) borrows tropes from horror flicks and disease-of-the-week movies and interpolates advertisements and product labels (notably, for Ex-Lax and ipecac, the poisons that kept Karen thin), contemporary news footage, faux talking heads, and grad-seminar intertitles. (“As we investigate the story of Karen Carpenter’s life and death we are presented with an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity.”)
“Superstar” begins as a droll prank and then tilts, almost imperceptibly, into surreal domestic nightmare and, finally, authentic tragedy. It was sui generis in both its execution and, arguably, its reception. Somehow, this not-a-short-not-a-feature, made by a graduate student for next to nothing, got a buzzy première at the 1988 Toronto International Film Festival, screened in large North American cities (including San Francisco, where it played as a midnight movie at the Castro), and won prominent fans such as the directors Jonathan Demme and John Waters. (“Finally, the little movie from hell that I’ve been waiting for,” Waters enthused.) But “Superstar” soon came under legal threat from Richard and the Carpenters’ label, A & M. Haynes had not received permission to use Carpenters songs in the film, including ubiquitous hits such as “Close to You,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and the title track. (Mattel also sought meetings with Haynes, but never took legal action; at least some of the Barbie actors were off-brand, sourced from flea markets.) “Superstar” was pulled from distribution in 1990; the following year, Haynes’s first feature, “Poison,” which had received a post-production grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, drew the ire of right-wing groups for its government-abetted homosexual content. The controversy vaulted Haynes onto mainstream America’s television screens via the likes of “Entertainment Tonight” and “Larry King Live,” where he came across as the most genial of guerrilla filmmakers.
Although “Superstar” was withdrawn from official circulation, if you lived in a big-enough city in the nineties and two-thousands, you might have been able to find it at a local indie video store. I first watched the film in 1998, when I rented it from Mondo Video, in downtown Buffalo, which kept a second- or third-generation dupe behind the counter. The picture was dark and boggy, and the soundtrack seemed as if it were recorded on a boom box inside a washing machine; I pulled my chair all the way up to the television set, squinting and rewinding, trying to make the words and images resolve. A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to borrow a pristine, straight-from-the-print copy from a friend, but there was experiential value in that first, frustrated viewing. If you are trying to get at something that is forbidden, maybe it should feel like your ear is pressed to a wall.
The surviving Carpenter family members would have had little incentive for Haynes’s movie to be widely seen in any form. Emerging into fame in 1970, Karen and Richard bottled the sound of the silent majority that was recoiling from the countercultural irruptions of the era: they were white and suburban and virginal; they lived with their parents; they filmed music videos at Disneyland; they were “young America at its very best,” according to President Richard Nixon, who was keeping lots of young America busy shooting villagers in Vietnam. But “Superstar” depicts the nuclear Carpenter family as smothering, Agnes as a hectoring shrew, and Karen and Richard’s partnership as crypto-incestuous. A montage, set to the wedding staple “We’ve Only Just Begun,” shows the siblings strolling along a promenade at sunset and as bride-and-groom figures atop a cake; Karen sleeps in a girlish canopy bed beneath a photo of herself with Richard. Later, when Karen briefly mistakes another man for Richard at a restaurant and is immediately smitten, Haynes reënacts the montage, this time with the new suitor. The implication is nothing scandalous, but simply that Karen cannot envision a creative or private life that is not bound up with her brother, that there is no Karen without the Carpenters, that she is a performing doll for her mother, brother, and record label to manipulate. Karen was an international star and a millionaire by the time she moved out of Agnes and Harold’s house, at age twenty-five.
The suppression of “Superstar” and attacks on “Poison” gave both works an outlaw cachet. “Superstar” was also the vanguard of Karen Carpenter’s rebirth as tragic muse to cooler, edgier artists. Sonic Youth put the scorching “Tunic (Song for Karen)” on their 1990 major-label début, “Goo,” and the band was one of the marquee names on “If I Were a Carpenter,” from 1994, a compilation of Carpenters covers by nineties alt-rockers including Babes in Toyland, Matthew Sweet, and the Cranberries. In her 2005 novel “Veronica,” Mary Gaitskill invokes an unnamed singer who could only be Carpenter. “When she shut herself up in her closet and starved herself to death, people were shocked,” Gaitskill writes. “But starvation was in her voice all along. That was the poignancy of it. A sweet voice locked in a dark place, but focused entirely on the tiny strip of light coming under the door.” Gaitskill’s imagery made me think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about a land where unending happiness depends on the agony of one isolated child. Here, it is Karen’s suffering, and the secrecy of it, that makes the placid American dream of the Carpenters possible.
Todd Haynes once told an interviewer that one of his main interests as a filmmaker is “the intense need that a viewer has to identify and fill meaning into anything that they’re given in a film.” One of the challenges that he sets for himself, he went on, is to “put up barriers that viewers were bound to circumvent.” In “Safe” (1995), for example, the barrier is the vapidity and passivity of the protagonist, a San Fernando Valley housewife who appears to grow allergic to her environment. In “Far from Heaven” (2002), the barrier is the stagecraft, tropes, and mannerisms of Douglas Sirk’s nineteen-fifties melodramas.
The barrier in “Superstar,” of course, is the Barbies. They start out as an alienation effect, but, eventually, Haynes’s use of rigid, fixed-expression dolls only intensifies his film’s pathos. The human forces aligned against Karen seem ever more immovable while Karen herself seems ever more helpless; to represent the ravages of her illness, Haynes literally carves away at the Karen-Barbie’s arms and face. Speaking with the Times in 1987, Haynes called Barbie “a loaded cultural icon that stands for a whole prescribed femininity that little girls are confronted with at an early age.” “Superstar” and other sources posit that Karen was ensnared by an eating disorder owing to two consequences of her very public and very regimented life: harsh scrutiny of her looks and a desperate need for control over at least one aspect of her being. The Barbie doll, with its impossibly pneumatic figure that exists to be dressed and posed and moved around at another’s whim, is the perfect vessel for embodying Karen’s predicament.
If there is a barrier in Gerwig’s “Barbie,” it is also Barbie. The movie accepts and explicates the ways that this hypersexualized yet genital-free doll is a reactionary archetype of femininity under a mega-consumerist patriarchy—this recognition is, rather miraculously, part of the fun. It will air a truism such as “Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything,” but it will also turn it upside down and shake it out to examine the contradictions and contingencies that lurk within. When a tween calls Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, a “fascist,” the doll-made-human is intelligently confused: “I don’t control the railways or the flow of commerce,” she replies. The operant word, though, is “control”: little girls control their Barbies as a rehearsal for all the ways that the world does and will control them. (“Superstar,” for its part, also deploys the F-word in one of its intertitles: “Anorexia can thus be seen as an addiction and abuse of self-control, a fascism over the body in which the sufferer plays the parts of both dictator and the emaciated victim whom she so often resembles.”)
At times, the months-long hype preceding the release of “Barbie” called to mind an episode of “Broad City,” from 2016, in which Abbi and Ilana, upon meeting Hillary Clinton, perform a quasi-religious ecstasy of face-pulling, swooning, and gasping; perhaps some of us feel conscripted to rejoice in our stiff and unconquerable neoliberal blond girlbosses if only because we lack other options. As inspired and funny as “Barbie” wound up being, it’s still a bit depressing to watch Gerwig, who rose up through low-budget independent films, take on the role of Mattel’s most creatively empowered corporate executive. “Superstar,” by contrast, is the breakout work of a director who has never come anywhere near a franchise, for whom the closest thing to selling out was doing an HBO remake of “Mildred Pierce.” (Also the title of a Sonic Youth song, as it happens.)
In fact, the degree to which “Barbie” and “Superstar” exist in diametrical, generational opposition to each other is uncanny. “Barbie” casts human beings as dolls; “Superstar” casts dolls as human beings. “Barbie” is a festival of licensing synergy; “Superstar” was suppressed because its maker never licensed a thing. For all its wit and heart, for all of its layers of thoughtful ambivalence, for all of the Kenergy that Ryan Gosling pours into the most sublimely gonzo film performance in memory, “Barbie” is first and last a vehicle for moving merch; “Superstar” cannot be sold, marketed, or distributed, nor could it ever conjure positive brand associations. “Barbie” cannot be escaped; “Superstar” cannot be seen—not in any legitimate way, at least. “Barbie” sets out to rehabilitate a deeply problematic icon; “Superstar” substitutes one icon for another, then cuts and slashes at her plastic flesh until she dies.
In celebrating, and grappling with, the multiplicity of Barbie—the all-embracing capaciousness of Barbie, for good and ill—“Barbie” turns its protagonist into a screen, and, as with any superstar, you can project onto her what you please. Barbie can be anything—women can be anything! And so it follows that she can also be the famous singer who starved herself to death. Legend has it that if you go to Barbie’s Dreamhouse, to just the right spot, at just the right time, and you stand very still, you might be able to hear her in there, even faintly, the sweet voice locked in a dark place. ♦