After Superstar, Haynes went on to make Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven and I’m Not There. For those, he used live actors, not puppets, but an argument could be made that there is a little Superstar in each of them, especially Far From Heaven, a 2002 melodrama in the tradition of Douglas Sirk’s “women’s films.” Haynes’ cinematographer has said he purposely aped the look of Superstar, and the virtual box the story’s heroine (Julianne Moore) backs herself into could have just as easily been the closet the all-American chanteuse crawled into one last time.

*     *     *

RICHARD paces the dressing room as KAREN sits in front of the mirror, her head resting on the vanity.

Lucas Hilderbrand, associate professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, is really into videotape
Corey Nickols
Lucas Hilderbrand, associate professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, is really into videotape
Director Todd Haynes made Superstar to honor an artist he truly admired and pitied
David Shankbone
Director Todd Haynes made Superstar to honor an artist he truly admired and pitied

RICHARD: What are you doing?

KAREN [barely audible]: Oh, I’m so sleepy.

RICHARD: How many laxatives did you take?

KAREN: Oh, I have no memory.

RICHARD: What are you trying to do, ruin BOTH our careers?

He paces anew; she does not move.

RICHARD: Now get up! Drink some coffee! Now come on, we’ve got 15 minutes!

He bends down to look at her face.

RICHARD: Jeez, look at your makeup. You’re a mess!

As he stomps out, she sobs and the opening notes of “Rainy Days and Mondays” kick in before we fade into a shot of KAREN onstage singing about what always gets her down.

*     *     *

Hilderbrand first saw Superstar in a class as an undergraduate.

“The instructor was a bit wacky—in a really charming and brilliant way—and showed a range of strange films,” he recalled. “It was shown, as it usually is, with a disclaimer about how it was banned and that this was a semi-illegal and, thus, extra-special screening. I wrote my first theory paper about Superstar, so the instructor allowed me to watch her copy again.”

He acquired his own Superstar tape a couple of years later and wrote about the film a few other times all the way through grad school, and he’s still writing about it today.

“It’s fascinating because it allows so many points of entry: genre analysis, experimental form, theories of spectatorial identification,” Hilderbrand says. “Part of what’s so great about the film is that it is smart enough to allow you to go into a high-theory vortex and still ground it in its complicated distribution history.”

It fascinates him that issues America was dealing with when Superstar was made are still at the forefront today: war, oil, terrorism, political divisiveness, recession, unemployment, post-industrial economics, the environment, drugs and gay rights.

“This is the world in which home video debuted,” he notes, “and in which we see startup businesses exploiting the market while the corporations are freaking out about piracy.”

He attributes much of Superstar’s appeal to “its forbiddenness, or at least, that’s the allure before people see it. But it’s pretty rare among cult films in that it’s actually a great film, and it always seems to hold up and live up to the hype. I’ve never shown it or loaned it out without the viewers totally loving it.”

*     *     *

As a film in which the surface expresses the emotional and physical states of its main character as well as its political critique, it is perhaps fortuitous that the film has become primarily accessible in low-fidelity dubs. Bootleg aesthetics visually and acoustically replicate the psychological and physical trauma experienced by Karen in the story; these warbled tapes also record the cult audience’s participation in remaking the text with each new duplicate produced and circulated. One of the great ironies of bootlegging is that it preserves Superstar in the public’s possession as it progressively destroys the original work. Analog reproduction repeatedly renders the collective demise of the narrative subject, the author and the format. Karen and Todd, we love you to death.

—From Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyrightby Lucas Hilderbrand

*     *     *

Over coffee in a shop near Hilderbrand’s home in Los Angeles’ Thai Town, from where he commutes (along with about half of Irvine’s Film and Media Studies’ faculty), the 33-year-old ticks off his life story. He hails from a college town in South Dakota that was “wildly progressive.” His film fanaticism began early.

“I saw Star Wars when I was 2 and was obsessed with it,” says Hilderbrand, who added that by high school, he was a “rabid cinephile,” something that was only possible in a small Midwest town back then because of videotape. “I’d check out things at the public library. When I got older, I bought a VCR so I could show videos of old movies to friends.”

He considers Sex, Lies, and Videotape (natch) his “turning point” film. “I was 13 when it was released and 14 when it came out on video,” he says. “It was the first film that made me realize there was something out there besides Hollywood films.”

It had such an effect that not only did he repeatedly view it, but he also acquired and “consumed” copies of the screenplay and production diary. He also mentions that he’s about to knock out a short column for on the 20th anniversary of Stephen Soderbergh’s breakout film.

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