Todd Haynes: The Intellectual From Encino

I've just caught up with a remarkable film. It's called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and it was made three years ago by Todd Haynes, a Brown University-educated writer-director who is now 30. Regrettably, you won't find this film in the video stores or catch it on cable. That's because Haynes received a cease-and-desist order from some big-shot lawyers who also wanted him to destroy every print of the film. Even if Haynes had agreed to that (he didn't), it wouldn't have mattered, because bootlegged video copies of _Superstar _are available, although if you're lucky enough to get hold of one, it'll probably be a grainy, ninth generation copy.

Back when the film screened at the Sundance Institute, it created quite a stir. John Waters was incredibly enthusiastic about it and introduced Haynes to David Lynch. Hollywood agents and producers called. There was major Hollywood buzz. Then the big-shot lawyer called.

The person who hired the big-shot lawyer, the person who has done all he can to prevent you from seeing a fresh print of Superstar, is Richard Carpenter, the older, living half of the brother-sister singing duo, The Carpenters. Remember Karen and Richard of Downey, California? She of the honeyed voice? He of the syrupy arrangements? Both with the bangs and the showbiz teeth? Emblematic of '70s youth, they were invited by Richard Nixon to perform at the White House. We see that scene in the film. Well, sort of. The Carpenters are not exactly in the White House. And, to be honest, they're not exactly singing either, because the actors who play Karen and Richard are not really singers. In fact they're not actors, either. They're dolls. That's right, folks, this is a movie starring dolls from the Ken and Barbie collection. Have you ever seen one doll goading another, anorexic doll into eating a piece of chocolate cake? You will here. What about a chiseled-down, sunken-cheeked doll collapsing on stage during a concert? Hey, welcome to the wacky world of Todd Haynes. It's a world you enter laughing and exit disturbed.

Superstar isn't the kitsch oddity it sounds like. It's done in a kind of faux documentary style, the dolls not-withstanding, and it sets out to answer the question, what happened to Karen Carpenter? Haynes depicts Karen as gifted but vulnerable, easily exploited by her career-minded brother and ultimately destroyed by a controlling family and a demanding public. At 20, she hasn't the inner strength to stand up for herself. Her ego is as undernourished as her body.

Superstar is a film of contrasts. We see the sunny, suburban neighborhood where, behind closed doors, mothers devour their young. We watch the All-American siblings who, offstage, are drowning in drugs and acrimony. We hear Karen's mellifluous renditions of "Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun," over footage of Nixon lying to the nation and bombs dropping on Vietnam. At the height of her fame, Karen dumps package after package of Ex-Lax into the same orifice that produced those magnificent sounds. Her life, literally, goes down the toilet. When the film was over, I said, "Wow. They don't make 'em like this in Hollywood."

And director Todd Haynes didn't make Superstar in Hollywood. He shot the film over the course of a couple of weekends at Bard College, where he had gone for an M.F.A. degree.

Haynes grew up in Encino, California, home of Michael Jackson and lots of other entertainment people, though Haynes's father is a sales rep for various fragrances, not a producer, and his mother is a decorator, not an ex-starlet. He attended the Oakwood school, in the San Fernando Valley, before heading off to Brown in 1980. There he majored in art and semiotics, which is, in case you're a rocket scientist not an English major, the general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that's been the rage among academic intellectuals since it was imported to Yale from France in the early '70s. There was no film department at Brown in 1980. If you wanted to make films, you majored in semiotics.

"Before you could make a film," says Haynes, as we sit at his parents' home in Encino, the suburb from which he defected thoroughly but returns to comfortably, "you had to study cultural theory, literary theory, and film theory. Then if you found a niche, say, Marxism, feminism, or psychoanalysis, and figured out what you wanted to squawk about, you made a film. It was very different from going to the USC/UCLA/NYU film school. There were not a lot of facilities, not a lot of emphasis on technique, so people had to find creative solutions. We ended up having to think a little harder about what we were doing and why. Many of the films coming out of film schools are thoughtless. They're just playing out modes of filmmaking they've seen before without much consideration about what they're saying. They mimic mainstream cinema without adding anything or commenting upon it."

And they never make movies with dolls. "The idea to do a film with dolls," says Haynes, "came before anything. I was intrigued with the idea of doing a straightforward narrative but replacing real actors with inanimate objects--and being careful with it and detailed in such a way so that it would provoke the same kind of identification as a real movie would."

Why the Carpenters? For Haynes they represented safety and tranquility after the turmoil of the '60s. "That was the last time I believed in the popular culture. Images of the family were everywhere. There were the Osmonds, the Jackson 5, the Partridge Family, the Brady Bunch, the Carpenters. And you're not fully aware what those images do to you until you find yourself under their spell. The images manipulated my view of the world and united me with my family and their values." Haynes calls those years the last sentimental moment of his generation. Then Karen Carpenter died of anorexia nervosa at the age of 32, and just around the bend was '80s cynicism and corruption. In retrospect, the Carpenters, says Haynes, "provided a perfect dialectic, almost a before and after."

I wonder, what will studio executives make of this kid who looks like a surfer and talks like Noam Chomsky? I find him a tad didactic and theoretical--but hell, it's refreshing to meet a Valley boy who speaks in paragraphs and is currently reading The Brothers Karamazov because he never got to it in college. The Hollywood powers, though, are they going to see their meal ticket in this guy?

Well, they did pick up on Superstar when it showed at the U.S. Film Festival (known today as the Sundance Festival). "It was exciting and strange to receive attention like that after a film I thought I was making for myself and a few friends," says Haynes. "I would have been happy to have gotten a few downtown club screenings in New York City. I was also surprised the Hollywood community was so thorough in its search for new talent. They found me."

So, after all the accolades and feelers, Haynes hopped the next plane to Hollywood, right? Wrong. He went back to New York and Apparatus Productions, a film cooperative he founded with some Brown cronies. Apparatus is a nonprofit organization that provides resources and money for emerging filmmakers. They've also put together a book for publication called The Guide to No-Budget Filmmaking.

Haynes says, "I knew I wanted to make my next film on my own terms. I needed to feel like I could handle a feature. I wasn't ready to do anyone else's script, and I wasn't ready to direct a $10 million film. I feel bad for filmmakers just out of graduate school who are handed big budget studio projects and watched like hawks. It's tremendous pressure for people who are just learning their craft. I want to protect myself from that and make my own films for a while."

Haynes's new film is called Poison. Shot in 16mm, it is feature-length and stars New York stage actors. According to Haynes, it is inspired by the writings of Jean Genet. The budget on Poison was $250,000. Seventy-five thousand came in the form of grants from several sources, including the New York State Council on the Arts and the NEA. The rest of the money came from private investors, "people who've known me for a while."

It's one thing to make a defiantly non-commercial film when you're in school. It's another to make one with other people's money. I ask Haynes about this. "Everyone who invested in Poison knew it was not the sort of film from which to expect full return and profits. But most of the investors are looking less at the individual film and more at the career of the filmmaker. In that way I feel justified in the support I've received. People like to help a director who might go somewhere."

So what's the story here? Is this guy delusional or is he going somewhere? It's still too early to say, although Poison should yield some clues. It's a film made up of three different stories with different casts and different visual styles, though the three stories interconnect throughout. The overriding theme is how society deals with behavior that deviates from the norm. Or, to put it another way, it is about the need of a society to turn against an individual or group who threatens the conventions of that society. (Sounds like Edward Scissorhands? It isn't. You won't hear the machinery creaking in the third act.) Part of Poison is a send-up of the B-movie, horror genre. But Haynes is not Mel Brooks. He doesn't merely parody, or plead for laughs. He's going deeper than that. He says he wants us to be aware of subliminal themes rooted in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I Was a Teenage Werewolf. In these films, and others like them, there was, he says, a "symbolic message about the bad element--be it communism or teenage delinquency--that was being worked out in the film.

Ultimately, the 'monster' is put in his place and society is relieved and made safe again." Another segment is about a seven-year-old boy who disappears after apparently killing his abusive father. Haynes explains that in this segment he questions the definitions of normality that inform the Long Island community where the story is set. The third segment is based loosely on Genet's novel Miracle of the Rose, and deals with a prisoner's romantic obsession with a fellow inmate.

Haynes likes stories of deviant behavior. Stories that exist in a kind of parallel world that isn't ours but looks like it. On the other hand, Haynes says he wants to make films that a lot of people will see. But unless Poison generates the same kind of heat that, say, sex, lies, and videotape did, Haynes will stay a directorial curiosity with a cult following.

Are there any directors working in Hollywood who interest Haynes?

"I like Tim Burton, although I found Batman disappointing. That's an example of [a director] thrust into a scale of filmmaking he might not have been ready for. Yet. And when you work with Jack Nicholson and a $40 million budget, how do you have a voice?" And then there's Spielberg. "If you're doing a movie about the suburbs you have to deal with the question, how do I dramatize the dark twisted side? How do I depict the peculiar? Spielberg [in E.T.] does it by having a weird thing happen in the narrative. Which is great. But then he pulls back and reaffirms the good mother and the sweet kid and the reigning community values. That pulling back destroys the peculiar part of what Spielberg does. And it's that peculiar part that makes him a success. I liked Heathers [directed by Michael Lehmann]. It was smart and twisted and funny, but the ending smelled of studio interference. I try to see the work of the newer directors, but I always end up going back to the older ones for inspiration."

Like who? Well, how about Bertolt Brecht?

"Brecht," says Haynes, "wanted people to think during a work of art. He wanted the audience to maintain their objectivity, to analyze what was transpiring. Fassbinder took it a step further. He wanted to engage the viewer emotionally while at the same time revealing the structure for what it was. That's an exciting premise. Of course, Hitchcock did it better than anybody. In Vertigo, for instance, when Jimmy Stewart wants the girl to look exactly like that image of Kim Novak--with her hair in a bun--you look at it objectively and realize how cruel it is, you realize, further, what men do to women, and yet when she walks in and her hair is hanging down you desperately want her to put it back in a bun."

In effect, Hitchcock shows you his hand, then makes you fret about whether he'll pull out the right card at the end. It's a variation on this strategy that Haynes put to work in Superstar. The use of the dolls is, of course, the ultimate artifice. It turns the characters into grotesques, and you giggle for the first five minutes. But then you stop, and you start to get into it, because the situation (dinner table chit chat) is so commonplace. "Conversations between kids and parents are familiar," says Haynes. "That's why people stop laughing at the dolls."

Haynes also succeeds in taking several hackneyed themes--the self-destructive star, the suburban nightmare, the over-protective mother--and turns them into a potent brew. One that lingers and provokes discussion.

Haynes says, "I wanted to redeem Karen Carpenter." Talk about audacious. If someone said that to me before I saw the film, I would have said, "Why?" It's one thing to try to redeem a supposed villain, because in that case, the audience brings passion to the theater. The director's job is to rechannel that passion and make you think about your allegiance, as Barbet Schroeder did with Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. But Karen Carpenter? How do you redeem someone who has no claim on our imagination, someone whom few took seriously to begin with? Amazingly, Haynes succeeds. You come away from the film missing Karen and humming Carpenters tunes. And suddenly the lyrics lodged in long-term memory--"Talking to myself and feeling old. Sometimes I'd like to quit. Nothing ever seems to fit..."--take on a new level of meaning.

Haynes says that after he heard from Richard Carpenter's lawyers he made them a counteroffer. He said he'd only show the film in clinics and schools, and he'd give all the money to the Karen Carpenter Foundation for Anorexia Research. Richard refused. "He's still controlling her," says Haynes.

"What would you say if you met Richard Carpenter at a party?"

"Fuck him. He's a jerk."

It'll be interesting to see if Hollywood has the same reaction to Todd Haynes or whether, after Poison, they embrace him and turn him into the Lynch/Burton/Waters of the '90s.


Jeffrey Lantos interviewed director Joe Ruben for our January issue.