Banned in 1990, 'Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story' Lives On in Bootlegs and a UCI Prof's Book
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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.
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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.
* * *
What happened? Why at the age of 32 was this smooth-voiced girl from Downey, California, who led a raucous nation smoothly into the 1970s, found dead in her parents’ home? Let’s go back, back to Southern California, where Karen and Richard grew up, back to the home in Downey where her parents still live to this day.
—Narrator in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
* * *
Critics dismissed the music by the Carpenter siblings as too sugary-sweet at a time when the Beatles were imploding, hard rock had drowned out the groovy sounds of the ’60s, and disco and punk were just around the corner. But the Carpenters were the biggest-selling group of the 1970s, with 10 singles that would eventually become million-sellers. As such hits as “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Superstar” piled up, Karen was lured away from her drum kit and persuaded to stand at a microphone at center stage while someone else kept the beat. Her reluctance to front the act, a lack of influence in selecting what she would sing, and the strict demands of Richard and their parents have been widely reported as contributing to her feeling she had little control of her life.
But her biggest issue concerned her body image. At 5-foot-4 and 145 pounds in her late teens, she went on the low-carb Stillman Diet, slimmed down to 120 pounds and managed to maintain her weight through the mid-1970s. By September 1975, she weighed 91 pounds. At some point (no one is sure when), she had developed a disease few had heard of in those days: anorexia nervosa. She underwent treatment with a New York psychotherapist in early 1982. When she dropped to 80 pounds, she was hospitalized and fed intravenously. She gained 30 pounds in two months, but unbeknownst to anyone, the forced feeding strained a heart that had already been weakened by years of crash dieting.
On Feb. 4, 1983, less than a month before turning 33, Karen suffered heart failure at her parents’ Downey home. She was taken to Downey Community Hospital, where she was pronounced dead 20 minutes later. The coroner cited heartbeat irregularities brought on by chemical imbalances associated with anorexia nervosa as the cause of death. Her passing drew the first major media attention to the disease.
Honest, warts-and-all source material from inside the Carpenter household was barely existent when Haynes, two years out of film school, decided to make what he considered a love letter to an artist he truly admired. Off a script Haynes co-wrote with producer Cynthia Schneider, he slyly cut from fictional family scenes to Barbie/Karen’s performances of Carpenters’ songs, giving them new, unintended meanings. Musical montages included images of Ex-Lax; salads; a bathroom scale; Cambodian bombing missions; Nixon tickling the ivories; the body of a Holocaust victim being tossed into a pit of corpses; and Karen’s beverage of choice, iced tea. (As the opening credit in frilly, white writing notes, Superstar is presented by “Iced Tea Productions.”)
A recurring image throughout Superstar is a bent-over Barbie being spanked on her backside. Many assume the spanker is her father, while some maintain the scenes symbolize a young woman being struck down any time she exerts independence.
* * *
KAREN, a Barbie doll with a poofy brown hairdo, stands in the living room while her MOTHER, a doll with a distorted face, fits her daughter for a dress.
KAREN: I will not wear that hip-hugger thing, Mother. It makes me look really fat.
MOTHER: Fat! I swear, ever since that stupid columnist called you hearty or something.
KAREN: He called me chubby.
MOTHER: Whatever. Chubby. You have just been so fanatical about your weight. I mean, that thing really went to your head.
KAREN: Oh, it did not. I just want to start watching what I eat.
MOTHER: Karen, you lost plenty of weight on that Stillman Diet. You look just fine now. All right, now that’s all I want to hear on the subject. You just concentrate on your career.
KAREN: That’s what I am doing. But you’ve got to look good in my career.
RICHARD, a Ken doll with a blown-dry blond ’do, enters the living room from the front door, breathless and excited.
RICHARD: Karen! Karen! You’ll never guess. Jack’s taking us out for a HUGE celebration dinner to honor your success. A smorgasbord at Scandia!
MOTHER: Oh, my!
RICHARD: What do you say to that?
Ominous music kicks up, the camera zooms in quickly on Karen’s blank Barbie face before cutting to a black-and-white image of a full plate of what appears to be fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and the works before dissolving into close-up of a box of Ex-Lax pills.
* * *
There is debate about what Superstar’s Karen is referring to when she wonders aloud to Richard what would become of the Carpenters’ all-American image if his “secret” got out. Some believe the openly gay Haynes was outing Richard, although it could have also referred to the pianist’s prescription-medication addiction. A year after Karen died, the real Richard married Mary Rudolph, the sister of the Carpenters’ road manager. They went on to have five children and remain together in Thousand Oaks.
Many speculate that Richard took legal action against Superstar not because of the unauthorized use of the Carpenters’ music (despite what the language in the lawsuit says), but because he was angered over the ugly portrayal of his family and the intimations about his personal life. A year before the Superstar settlement was reached in 1990, CBS aired the made-for-TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story, which boasted having Richard as executive producer and contributor of an original song, “Karen’s Theme.” But when later asked on a fan site if he was pleased with the TV movie, Richard replied, “Heavens no, I was not pleased. It’s not a good film. One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was agreeing to cooperate in the making of it.” He has been fiercely wary of film and documentary projects about the Carpenters ever since.
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.
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 FlowTV.org on the 20th anniversary of Stephen Soderbergh’s breakout film.
Hilderbrand wrote about film for his high-school newspaper and made student videos, but he never owned a video camera, even before entering the prestigious film school at New York University. Once there, he found out-of-pocket costs for filmmaking so prohibitive that he quickly left and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, which did not offer film production at that time. Hilderbrand instead took those courses at a nearby community college, but he quickly realized, “It is much more fun to watch films than to make them.” Fortunately, the university had strong programs that fit his passion: He earned his bachelor’s degree in film and cultural studies.
He toyed with the idea of becoming a film critic before landing back at NYU, where he would get his doctorate in film and video studies in 2006. He then came out west for a year-long fellowship in USC’s cinematic arts program before discovering the job opening at UC Irvine. “It was the best job in my field the year I got it,” he says without a hint of boastfulness.
Hilderbrand joined a growing Film and Media Studies department that has built “a really strong faculty.”
“We’re not as famous as UCLA, USC or NYU, but we’re one of the best undergraduate programs in the country,” he says in that same non-bragging tone. “We’re doing very well with very few resources.”
In an earlier conversation, he’d mentioned that research like his helps explain our world every bit as much as the scholarship produced by the science and engineering schools for which UCI is far better known.
“There are really innovative and interdisciplinary faculty working in the humanities, arts and social sciences,” Hilderbrand says. “It’s those programs that are the most vulnerable during this period of severe budget cuts because those programs enrich our lives in unquantifiable ways. The cuts have been brutal, and they’re about to get worse.”
* * *
Analog videotape was once a new technology, and before too long, DVDs and MPEGs will seem old as well. By treating magnetic-tape technologies as merely transitional and inferior to what came before and after, such work presents a distorted and incomplete account that ignores the material and experiential attributes of these recording and playback technologies—and the new modes and expectations of access that they introduced.
—From Inherent Vice
* * *
Inherent Vice, not to be confused with the new Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, takes its title from a term librarians use to describe the acidity of chemically processed wood-pulp paper, the manufacturing toxin that burns through old book titles and turns interior pages brittle and yellowish brown. Videotape suffers a similar fate. But the term can also refer to the illicit phenomenon inherent to home video: piracy. Additionally, inherent vice can describe the inevitable explosion of pornography, especially the homemade kind, ignited by the home-video revolution.
Hilderbrand slyly nods to all three interpretations. This guy’s really into videotape. Inherent Vice, published by Duke University Press, is likely the only book on shelves with references to audience-gratification studies, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1984 Betamax decision and “Pamela Anderson’s pussy.” One theme he explores is the way videotape exchanges relied upon and facilitated personal connections. Hilderbrand made his own in writing Inherent Vice and seeing it hit shelves.
“I gave a lecture in Claremont about a video maker I had never been able to track down, and it turned out she had been a student of two of the people in the audience,” he recalled. “I was actually able to find her and share my work with her. I’ve also gotten out-of-the-blue messages from people who’ve had similar personal histories with home video and who’ve tracked me down by e-mail or on Facebook. It’s been really gratifying that the book resonates in that way and that it seems to be finding a receptive audience beyond academia.”
As he’s mentioning the “word-of-mouth way” his book is circulating, he’s reminded that that’s the same way bootleg videos find viewers.
“Exactly,” he says with that devilish smile. “That was one of my hopes for the book, that it would be readable and accessible. I did not want something that was just textual analysis.”
He concedes nostalgia for videotape drives some of the affection, but, as he writes in Inherent Vice, video’s unique aesthetic is undeniable. As soon as the grainy, streaked and/or skipping picture fills the screen, viewers immediately know what format they’re watching. There is no similar DVD aesthetic yet. Animated and live-action movies and TV shows even simulate grainy video to evoke that format or the years of its heyday.
His book also includes chapters on fair use and copyright, but Hilderbrand—who mostly sides with consumers over content providers—does not expect Inherent Vice to change any laws. However, his chapter on the Vanderbilt Television News Archive—which, beginning in 1968, began taping and archiving nightly news programs for historical analysis and was the subject of a copyright-infringement lawsuit brought by CBS—was picked up while the book was still in galley form and reprinted in a legal brief that’s part of Google’s defense of a suit by publishers to prevent the search-engine company from scanning and posting book pages online. Hilderbrand, who assumes Vanderbilt officials informed Google’s lawyers about his research, says, “I was happy to share it for that.”
* * *
Despite what you may have seen on TV in The O.C., Laguna Beach, The Real Housewives of Orange County or even Arrested Development, Orange County is one of the most diverse areas of the country and home to numerous diasporic populations. In that Southern California way, many of greater LA’s “real” ethnic neighborhoods blend in and out of the generic suburban sprawl. The strip malls may look alike, but the superficial similarity belies incredibly varied goods, including bootleg videos of foreign content imported from overseas or taped from satellite broadcasts on the West Coast.
—From Inherent Vice
* * *
Hilderbrand reported from Korean video stores in Irvine; a Japanese shop in Costa Mesa; the Vietnamese Asian Garden Mall in Westminster; and other outlets in Anaheim, Garden Grove, Pomona, West Covina and San Gabriel for his Inherent Vice chapter titled “Diasporic Asian Video Markets in Orange County.” He was originally going to reprint something he’d previously written about New York’s Koreatown, but he decided he wanted his book to “speak to Orange County and Southern California.”
He started with immigrant video shops in Thai Town, then fanned out to the rest of Southern California. He writes about bootleg tapes, which appear to be commercial-grade but are mostly Korean television shows recorded off satellite feeds, still being the predominant format at Dachan Video in Irvine’s Orange Tree shopping plaza. The book also includes a photo shot by the author in December 2007 of a hidden cache of bootleg Korean VHS tapes behind a sliding shelf at Irvine Video.
Asked how an LA-by-way-of-New York-Minnesota-and-South Dakota boy knew where to find these places, Hilderbrand replies that he enlisted the help of a friend who studies Asian cinema. “I sensed that finding the video stores would be like finding the better restaurants. Everything’s in a strip mall, so basically, you need a local to introduce you to the right places.”
He did not speak any of the languages and could not read any of the signs. The only tapes he understood were the ones that included English subtitles.
“People pretty much ignored me, and I didn’t really talk to people,” he says. “Basically, I felt like a tourist. It was an uncomfortable position to be in, but I felt I had to do it to talk about what’s happening in the U.S.”
Identifying the shops in his book produced an internal argument. “I didn’t want to get anyone busted. On the other hand, if I was vague, it would not have been seen as useful,” he says. “I want to respect the business and the services they provide to the community, but these stores are so pervasive and serve so many diasporic communities in different cities that I felt I should talk about them.”
He acknowledged receiving wary stares from shopkeepers, but Hilderbrand was already used to getting them from bootleg-video distributors he unsuccessfully tried to chat up at cult film festivals as part of his research.
He says he snapped his photos “subtly, and I assumed they’d never know about it.”
* * *
As Inherent Vice hits the market, Hilderbrand finds an industry that is in flux. Box-office numbers continue to climb, but home-video and TV ratings are off due to competition from the Internet and wireless technologies. The economy is not helping matters, nor are the limitless channels and options splintering everyone’s attention.
“YouTube and Blu-ray didn’t exist when I started the book, and at first, they seemed like they might make what I was doing irrelevant,” he says. “I decided the project had to be historical because I couldn’t predict what would happen, and anything that was current would be out of date by the time the book was in print. What was striking was that, instead, all the new developments recycled the same issue from the ’70s and ’80s—the anxieties about piracy, about the industry, about finding new business models, about allowing audiences new modes of access.”
Speaking of audiences, Hilderbrand writes in Inherent Vice of doing an informal e-mail poll among friends and colleagues and being shocked at how many people had seen, loved and owned bootleg copies of Superstar. Later asked about this, he conceded that his e-mail list is fairly specialized and most other people have never heard of the film, let alone have the patience to watch it online. But he was “pleasantly surprised” at what happened when he showed Superstar to undergrads a few years ago.
“Some of them sang along. They knew all the words,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if they would even know who the Carpenters were.”
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