Meewella | Critic

According to P

Tag: Todd Haynes

QuickView: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

“What happened? Why at the age of 32 was this smooth-voiced girl from Downey, California, who led a raucous nation smoothly into the 70s, found dead in her parents’ home?”


Content Warning: eating disorders

Long before Barbie — in fact when Greta Gerwig was just four years old — Todd Haynes created a fascinating student project which used the dolls to portray the life of Karen Carpenter. Filming animated toys is itself nothing novel, but Haynes’ specific combination of Barbie with Carpenter’s life and particularly her anorexia nervosa created a powerful statement about society’s treatment of women and celebrities. In contrast to the previous decade’s rock and roll, the Carpenters’ melodic pop was marketed as “clean cut”, imposing a particular image on siblings Karen and Richard. The use of dolls presents a clear statement about the way in which musicians are controlled and puppeted within a society driven by consumerism rather than art. Barbie’s particular body shape was no accidental choice for a film focused on anorexia (at times adopting the style of a Public Service Announcement) — not only would anorexia-related complications eventually lead to Karen’s death, but Haynes portrays a life dominated by a desperate desire for control. Her family are often protrayed in a grotesquely distorted manner and Superstar may have a subversive tone but it is only ever sympathetic to the tragic figure of Karen and it is overtly critical of society’s treatment of female celebrities in particular. The result reflects unpleasantly back on Barbie herself, as much a tacit subject of the film as a tool. Meanwhile that same treatment of female characters and controlled image is a thread that runs through Haynes’ work, including Carol and most recently May December.


QuickView: May December (2023)

“I want to find a character who is difficult, on the surface, to understand.”


With an actress visiting a once-infamous family to learn details that will help her portray the mother, there is an argument for going into May December blind to the story. I won’t spoil anything that is not apparent within the first 20 minutes of the film. Gracie and Jae Yoo’s infamy arises from the fact he was a child when their relationship began but they have stayed together and raised a family. By approaching their relationship from the back — as their children are about to leave for university — rather than from the start, the script has a broader canvas and an ability to wrong-foot the audience. Our perspective is largely Elizabeth’s as she investigates and gradually develops a fuller perspective by speaking to more family and locals, the score matching this mysterious tone with insistent strings and enquiring piano. The central performances from Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton are nuanced and emotionally compelling, particularly in the parallels drawn between the leading women — both are manipulative, Gracie in her desire to control the narrative and Elizabeth in her search for acting inspiration. There are missteps, like the late “revelation” of a lie that ought to have been clear, but overall Todd Haynes weaves an excellent tapestry of ambiguity that leaves the audience uncomfortable as we evaluate the relationship before us.


"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."

(CC) BY-NC 2003-2023 Priyan Meewella

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