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Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story was banned in 1990, but bootlegs still circulate, and you can watch it on the Internet. It was also the inspiration for UCI professor Lucas Hilderbrand’s new book
“February 4, 1983” is offset in light type against a black screen, which melts into the interior of a suburban home. “A dramatization” flashes underneath the breakfast table captured by a hand-held camera moving from room to room.
“Kaaaren,” calls out a middle-aged-sounding woman off-screen. The way she drags out the name, she must be Karen’s mother. The way the uncut opening scene is framed, the hand-held must represent her point of view, searching. Sashaying through the living room, Mother gently nags about the late hour in relation to the number of shoppers who will soon be “jammed” into Saks Fifth Avenue.
“We better get going,” she warns. Her pace slows considerably. The silhouette of artificial plants hung alongside the hallway entrance produces the eerie feeling of entering a forbidden jungle. “Kaaaren,” says Mother, her tone now less annoyed, more concerned.
She arrives at a bedroom door, begins to open it but thinks to knock first.
Using the palm of her hand to gently push her way in, Mother is greeted by the sight of an unmade and unoccupied bed. Foreboding music familiar to anyone who has experienced the past half-century of horror cinema kicks in, ramping up the tension.
“Karen!” barks Mother, sternly, as she would to a toddler who just poured chocolate cake batter over her own head. Now in front of a closet, she cracks open the door just enough to give her the first look at what will be exposed to the rest of us in the next instant.
“KAREN! OH, GOD!” she screams as the door opens wider. The background music is louder, more terrifying. Existing light from the bedroom exposes female legs bent on the closet floor. Fleshy lower thighs rise into a silk slip covering the downed figure’s midsection. The viewer cannot make out the rest of the comatose female, but Mother obviously knows who she is.
“HARRY, IT’S KAREN!” she yells. “HARRY! HAAARRRY!”
Mother’s voice trails off. As the creepy music crescendos, the camera whips around to show flashes of pitch-black darkness and the silky-white death shroud.
* * *
And so begins Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a 43-minute video first distributed in 1987 that you are not supposed to see, although plenty of people and more still do. A settlement between filmmaker Todd Haynes and Karen’s brother and performing partner Richard Carpenter over the unauthorized use of the Carpenters’ music in the experimental video has criminalized Superstar’s sale and distribution since 1990. But bootleg copies still circulate, you can watch it for free right now on the Internet; its easy availability allowed Entertainment Weekly to have no qualms placing Superstar at No. 45 on the “Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time.”
The documentary about anorexia nervosa and female body issues within a proto-Behind the Music has been a women’s-studies favorite for years. Superstar’s unusual storytelling devices, no-budget resourcefulness and outlaw status helped launch Haynes’ Hollywood career and made bootleg videos must-sees for film majors—even in these days of DVDs, Blu-ray and YouTube. The video has been written about in books about forbidden cinema, food in film and, of course, the same-titled Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story by Glasgow School of Art lecturer Glyn Davis.
It also inspired the new book Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright by Lucas Hilderbrand. It occurred to the assistant professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine that all the issues raised by Superstar could be addressed separately in a book exploring the aesthetic and legal innovations of analog home video. Sure enough, Inherent Vice’s “Grainy Days and Mondays: Superstar and Bootleg Aesthetics” chapter touches on all the issues found elsewhere in the 320-page book: copyright, fair use, aesthetics, degradation and distribution—illegal and otherwise.
“The whole book project came out of that close case study of Superstar,” Hilderbrand says. “It inspired my thinking in all those directions, but it is also a pretty singular case. There are other films that have been banned that have found followings, or other works that have had cult communities emerge through tape circulation, such as Heavy Metal Parking Lot. The perfectness and singularity of Superstar made it difficult to find comparable case studies, so I decided to find instances that were radically different to suggest a range of possible models.”
Inherent Vice was several years in the making, with Hilderbrand’s research taking him to New York, Nashville and immigrant-owned video shops throughout Orange County. Should this leave you with the impression that the muse for his academic tome must be as middle-of-the-road as a Carpenters chart-topper, know that the still-living Karen first appears in Superstar in her Downey bedroom—portrayed by a Barbie doll.