Todd Haynes is a helluva storyteller. I don’t mean via the medium of film, though of course the statement holds true there (as anyone who’s seen Safe or Far From Heaven or his latest masterpiece Carol can tell you); I mean he spins a good yarn in person, as those of us who were lucky enough to attend his program at Film Society of Lincoln Center Saturday can attest. The double bill was part of Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams, a retrospective not just for him, but programmed with him; the filmmaker helped FSLC select favorite films that influenced his own work, and paired them with screenings of all his movie to date. And yes, that included Superstar.
That 1988 film marked Haynes’ breakthrough — a 43-minute dramatization of the life of the late pop singer Karen Carpenter, enacted entirely by Barbie dolls. FSLC head programmer Dennis Lim called it “the skeleton key” to all Haynes’ work, and you can see what he means; he grapples with the themes of fame and popular culture obsession that would reappear in Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There, while engaging for the first time with a female protagonist.
He devised the project with friend Cynthia Schneider, hitting on the idea of making a movie with dolls “because I was interested in sort of playing out some theories or ideas or questions about narrative structure, and how we identify in stories emotionally. It came out of some stuff in college, critical theory and stuff like that — I felt like if we followed a genre very closely, but did it with dolls, and did it very carefully and very lovingly and attentively, it could stimulate emotions in a viewer the way it would if it was actors.”
It’s a pretty remarkable piece of work, functioning initially as kitsch — sure, the sight of a Barbie at a tiny microphone, moving to a Karen Carpenter song with little colored spotlights blurry in the background, is intrinsically funny. But there’s never a sense that Haynes is winking at us, or laughing at them; he acknowledges the rise-to-fame/fall-from-grace arc, and satirizes the form, but takes his protagonist (doll or no) seriously. That approach, Haynes says, made the film feel “layered and complicated,” offering a rich potpourri of ideas to wrestle with: “the idea of doing dolls, with Karen Carpenter, with that music as the fuel of the film, and as a kind of another layer of commentary on the body and the ways we play with dolls, and what the Barbie doll represents for women, and all of those things.”
But it wasn’t an easy sell. First of all, the picture “didn’t sit comfortably” with the gatekeepers of experimental cinema at that specific moment: “They were not convinced by it. Its tone was off-putting.” Experimental film wasn’t much for camp and/or irony, Haynes recalls, and had just begun to engage with conventional Hollywood styles and genre influences. And once it finally began to find an audience, there was the problem with Richard Carpenter himself.
The issue came from the unlicensed use of the Carpenters’ recordings — par for the course in experimental film at the time, Haynes says — and once the film began to attain some degree of notoriety, “we knew its days were numbered. So we enjoyed a year, a year and half of the film getting shown all over the place, even semi-theatrically, and then I got a series of cease-and-desists from Richard Carpenter, A&M Records, and I guess his music publishing.” They ultimately had to withdraw the film, which now exists primarily, as Lim put it, as a “fetishized bootleg item”; Lincoln Center couldn’t even advertise they were showing it, listing it as a “special surprise” in a program of “Rarities,” though anybody who knows anything about Haynes’ work knew what was up.
Will that ever change? Haynes won’t give up hope. “After so many years — and again, I haven’t re-approached it — I feel like maybe it’s time to try it again and see where he stands. I feel sad that Karen Carpenter’s body is sort of still being controlled by her brother.”
Superstar wasn’t the only rarity on tap Saturday; Haynes also showed his rarely screened short film Dottie Gets Spanked, made between Poison and Safe and airing on public television in 1993. It too deals with the specter of fame — in this case, of a Lucy-esque comedy television star, as seen through the eyes of a young boy who loves her, sitting in front of the television every time she’s on, drawing pictures of her day and night. It was an autobiographical effort, inspired by his own love of Lucille Ball and drawings of her and other female icons. “Why do you only draw pictures of girls?” asked a girl playmate. “Are you bad at men?” Little did she know, he had a long career ahead of him drawing “pictures of girls.”
Haynes was back later that night to introduce a screening of the Roger Ebert-penned 1970 cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an arch, raised-eyebrow portrait of the pitfalls of fame that’s a clear influence on Superstar. It was the result of a self-conscious attempt by 20th Century Fox to “get hip” at the end of the 1960s, as they landed on the idea of drafting softcore auteur Russ Meyer (“I don’t know how,”) to do a sequel to their earlier hit Valley of the Dolls — “which this is not, at all,” Haynes mused.
But Haynes doesn’t just admire BVD’s thematic interests. “The thing that continually blows me away whenever I watch BVD is the editing,” he explained. “It is this furious, methamphetamine editing, and this incessant cavalcade of coverage, where there are shots of every single conceivable angle of the same scene, coming so fast, which in my minds transforms this movie into something absolutely and totally unlike anything made in the rock era.”
Also key to the film — and a big influence on his own work, Haynes says — is its “stylistic confusion and complexity. This movie is prurient and prude, it’s naive and ironic, it’s corny and shocking, it’s absurd and progressive, it’s candy-colored kitsch and giddily experimental.” As Haynes ran down that list, your correspondent first chuckled with glee (he was nailing exactly what’s great about that movie), then got a touch depressed. In addition to being one of the finest filmmakers of our time, Haynes is also a better film critic than most of us who do it for a living. Stop hogging all the skills, Todd Haynes.
Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams continues through Sunday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.