Saturday, May 5, 2012

Overlooked Gems #31 and 32: Superstar/Poison

Say this about Todd Haynes: he never repeats himself. Like contemporaries David O. Russell and Steven Soderbergh, Haynes is an intellectually curious filmmaker just as interested in glorifying old forms as he is in subverting them. Haynes has had his name on a number of critically lauded projects: the intensely creepy Safe, the unconventional Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, the recent HBO miniseries/film Mildred Pierce, and his best film, 2002’s Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama Far From Heaven. But there are a few other overlooked films in Haynes’ filmography that deserve their due.

Superstar Grade: 89 (A-)

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is perhaps inevitably overlooked: it’s a grainy, 43-minute short film. It uses Barbie dolls rather than actors. It is insanely lo-fi. It is no longer widely available, as Richard Carpenter sued Haynes for unauthorized use of his songs. The only way to find it is online, via shoddy prints on YouTube and other sites. Yet Superstar has built up a mythic quality in some circles as the striking, audacious debut of a talented filmmaker with a fully formed aesthetic.

The film tells a dramatized version of the story of Karen Carpenter, whose brother, Richard, was an aspiring musician songwriter who found a much-needed singer in his sister. The two gained widespread popularity in the 1970s despite criticism for their soft sound and squeaky-clean image. But Karen had personal demons in the form of crippling image problems, not helped by media scrutiny. Karen Carpenter then underwent a long battle with anorexia that led to her extreme weight loss and death in 1983 from heart failure. She was 32 years old.

With Superstar, Haynes already shows heavy interest in how cultural expectations affect people, particularly artists. Just as Safe showed Julianne Moore’s character reacting violently to her claustrophobic environment and Far From Heaven showed characters unable to pursue their passions because of social mores, Superstar shows a tortured character who believes herself to be a hideous monster because she can’t compare to the models on television. Haynes has a few clever tricks up his sleeve here: when the Karen Barbie doll loses weight, Haynes brings in a whittled away Barbie that looks unnervingly thin. When Karen’s fears of being overweight are shown, Haynes cuts to pictures of models to show how media saturation poisons the mind. And when Karen meets her tragic fate, strung out on ipecac and laxatives, painfully self-conscious, Haynes uses a combination of jarring white noise and a cacophony of Carpenters songs blending together into an ungodly mess that’s both senseless and deeply frightening.

Haynes would later explored diverse musical personalities like Bob Dylan and David Bowie in films like I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine, but Superstar shows that talent from the beginning. The Carpenters were widely seen as a reactionary attack on the more hard-edged rock and roll of the time, not to mention the revolutionary movements of the 1960s. Their squeaky-clean image was undeniable, yet through a series of fake interviews, Haynes establishes that this dismissal wasn’t entirely fair. Yes, the Carpenters were co-opted by the right and the squares (best typified in shots of Richard Nixon, who called the Carpenters the height of American music), but there was a sense of sadness and inevitability in Karen Carpenter’s voice. Perhaps even from the beginning, there was something more complicated and far more melancholy about her existence. Haynes cuts through the bullshit mythology in a way that hinted towards his future musical-film triumphs. Plus, Haynes’ use of the Carpenters’ songs makes a case that, you know, some of them are pretty catchy.

Poison Grade: 82 (A-)

Superstar gained some notoriety for its unauthorized use of the Carpenters’ songs and its audacious nature, but Haynes didn’t have to wait too long to make some more noise. His feature-length debut, 1991’s Poison, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, where it gained even wider notoriety for its stark depiction of homosexuality, homophobia, and a clear AIDS allegory. The film received an NC-17 rating, but it managed to make $1 million at the box office anyway despite its controversy and limited release. Poison shows a director willing to push buttons and experiment stylistically, to great effect, and the openly-gay Haynes became one of the first in a wave of homosexual directors willing to explore gay themes with a previously unseen candidness.

Inspired by the novels of Jean Genet, Poison switches back and forth between three stories: “Hero”, a mockumentary of a young boy with a troubled discovery of his sexuality who killed his father and then ran away…or rather flew away. In “Homo”, Haynes switches back and forth between a stark prison drama between gay inmates and a dreamlike past between the two at a past facility. In “Horror”, Haynes adopts a cheesy 1950s B-movie style in which a scientist discovers the source of human sexuality in chemical form, accidentally drinks it, and transforms into a deformed monster.

“Hero” is the least engaging story of the bunch- it gets off to a sluggish start and is less immediately gripping than the other two segments. But the story gains cumulative power as Haynes explores the story of a young boy with a troubled childhood. Haynes showed sympathy for his docudrama subject in Superstar, and he shows sympathy for a boy clearly confused by the changes he’s going through, with a strong masochistic urge (described, not shown) and a difficult relationship with his parents. His mother idealizes him, his father abuses him, and it all comes to a harrowing end.

“Homo” is better. The bleakness of the environment and the homophobia of the prisoners forces a gay prisoner to hide his feelings for another man; the other men rape and abuse as a sign of power. The central character of “Homo” shows great depth of feeling beneath his thorny exterior. His past experiences at a prison camp of sorts has a dreamy, idealized quality, but the fakeness of the sets and environments here should give the viewer pause as to whether or not these reminiscences truly reflect the past, especially in a jarring scene where fellow prisoners spit on a prisoners face to the point where the spit resembles something a little nastier.

“Horror” is the best of the bunch. Haynes has a great gift for replicating and commenting on past forms. Where B-movies of the past often contained metaphors for nuclear horror, this story of a doctor who tastes the height of human sexuality (literally) is a clear AIDS allegory. The character infects everyone he has sexual contact with (kisses, really, but that reflects the era Haynes replicates), including a woman the character falls in love with. The sad relationship between the two lovers and the persecution of a man who’s ultimately just a victim showcases Haynes’ interest in sexuality, social perception of cultural events, and persecution. That the film is true to the goofy genre it apes is only a bonus, and it foreshadowed how Haynes would pull it off to even greater effect with the 1950s-style melodrama Far From Heaven.

Next on Overlooked Gems: Todd Haynes’ glam-rock classic Velvet Goldmine.

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