All posts by Shane Wilson

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRASH (1996)

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: James Spader, Holly Hunter, , ,

PLOT: The survivor of a violent car crash immerses himself in a hidden world of auto accident fetishists and the dangerous and masochistic lengths they go to in search of sexual gratification.

Still from Crash (1996)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With three other entries, you can’t feel too bad about depriving David Cronenberg of another spot on our very full list. But Crash undeniably focuses on a very unusual kink, and treats its obsessive pursuers with respect and understanding.

COMMENTS: When Crash came out, the conversation inevitably focused on its central fetish. Given his filmography—a  CV. deeply fascinated with the horrors of the body—a tale of sexual adventurers who find carnal thrills in confronting the specter of mechanized death must have seemed like a natural match for David Cronenberg. But the literalization of the characters’ passions—both sexual and automotive—was almost destined to shock and offend, regardless of who was behind the camera. Talk of such an outré fetish sucked all the air out of the room, reducing Crash to a one-line précis: “that movie where people get off on car crashes.” (Eventually to be replaced by: “No, the earlier one; not the one that solved racism.”)

For anyone who went to the multiplex anticipating the sex-fueled romp that the controversy portended, it must have been a rude awakening indeed. Has there ever been a sadder movie about sex?  Crash‘s interests are not prurient, strictly speaking. The characters are deeply unsatisfied, sexually and in all other ways. It’s almost cliché by now to build a film around characters who “just want to feel something,” but Cronenberg earns it by investing in the emotional hollows of people who feel isolated and yearn for an experience that feels authentic and meaningful, no matter how transgressive or self-destructive.

Consider the vacant stares of the beautiful people that populate Crash, led by loveable freak-a-deek James Spader. His James Ballard (who, significantly, shares a name with the original novel’s author) has a gorgeous wife, a powerful job in the film industry, a modern-to-with-an-inch-of-its-life condo… and he is dead to the world. He and his wife trade tales of their infidelities in hope of getting a charge from the jealousy. It takes a fatal car wreck that leaves him seriously injured to jump-start his moribund psyche. He pursues it by hooking up with a fellow survivor of his crash, but finds even deeper connections through an obsessive photographer who masterminds a secret underground club of fellow auto-smashup aficionados who re-enact car crashes of the rich and famous. None of these other people seem any happier, desperate as they are to recapture a high that can only be achieved by risking life itself.

Even if you’re enough of a go-with-the-flow kind of person to buy into the whole symphorophilic angle, Cronenberg manages to find a way to heighten the stakes for you, most notably through one of Vaughan’s acolytes, a crash victim in braces (Arquette) with a large scar on her leg that goes from being a visual simile of a vagina to a literal substitute for one. Of course, if you’ve watched James Woods turn his chest cavity into a gun holster, this may not seem that shocking to you. But where other Cronenberg films explore the human body through the lens of hallucination or horror-fantasy, Crash sets those filters aside. Yep, they’re really going to do it like that. Yep, they’re really going to revel in it.

And that’s probably what turned off so many people about Crash. There’s no shield, no veneer of artificiality to protect you from these people and things they will do to make a connection. They’re too weird to be normal, but not weird enough to easily dismiss, and certainly not the kind of “weirdness” the mainstream can usually handle, like being into super sexytime. As Cronenberg himself says, “I love to disappoint people.” Judging from the agony Spader and Unger radiate as their ultimate act of intercourse falls a mite short of true satisfaction, Cronenberg is a very happy man.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the result is so far from being involving or compelling, so intentionally disconnected from any kind of recognizable emotion, that by comparison David Lynch’s removed ‘Lost Highway’ plays like ‘Lassie Come Home.'” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times [contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kyle Conley. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

“IDIOT CONTROL NOW”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – THE GAUNTLET

Following a triumphant return in 2017, MST3K is back for another go-round on streaming service Netflix, and this time, they’ve bowed to the expectations of an audience that is keen to binge-watch. Season 12 is a tight six episodes, and the show’s already thin plot has been tweaked to explain that Jonah, Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot––and you—are going to be subjected to this latest series of world-shattering bad movie experiments in a row, force-fed in one continuous orgy of cinematic incompetence.

Still from "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet" (2018)

This doesn’t technically matter as concerns the real heart of the series: bad movies being riffed. But it is significant because the format has encouraged the producers to select movies that will speak to the greatest number of subscribers: they’re newer, they’re genre, and—unfortunately for us here in the land of weird movies—they’re pretty easy to digest. In the campaign to make the show a success, it feels like some of the inherent weirdness has been bleached out.

Mind you, they haven’t skimped on the awfulness. Our season kicks off with one of the most notorious bad movies of recent vintage: the blatant E.T. ripoff/unsubtle McDonald’s promotional cash-grab Mac and Me (1988). Unlike a lot of copycats, you can really feel the stress of trying to hit all of the original’s story beats while trying to heighten them for maximum payoff. Lonely fatherless child? Let’s put him in a wheelchair. Everyone loved E.T. dressed as a ghost? Wait till they see MAC in a bear costume leading a full-on dance number. Oh, and that other film moved truckloads of Reese’s Pieces? Think how much Coke we’re gonna sell. What makes Mac and Me weirdest are the gallons of flopsweat being generated by filmmakers who are desperate to surprise you into forgetting about the vastly superior predecessor. It’s a feature-length version of Daffy Duck’s ultimate trick.

If there is a more mercenary approach to filmmaking than the one exhibited by Mac and Me, it lives and thrives at The Asylum, and their ticket to the party is MST3K’s newest subject ever, Atlantic Rim (2013). A half-hearted riff on Pacific Rim with roughly a thousandth of that film’s special effects budget, the movie isn’t so much strange as it is sad. Like most Asylum mockbusters, it’s a con job designed to fool people who can’t quite remember all two words of the title of the movie they want to see, and as such isn’t really worthy of this show’s attention. The film goes through the motions while trying to show as little action as possible. Most of the fun to be had comes in the form of a gleefully cast-against-type Graham Greene, chewing scenery in a way he knows he’s unlikely to come by again.

Lords of the Deep (1989) is another movie hoping to piggyback on another film’s ambition (in this case, The Abyss), but hampered by what it can’t afford to show. There’s some entertaining sniping amongst the crew of an overworked underwater base, and star Priscilla Barnes’ interaction with strange ocean-dwelling creatures takes the form of trippy drug-like scenes that come as a surprise. Throw in a comically obvious villain, a body count that rises and falls, and a stilted distaff version of HAL 9000 and you get a movie that’s pleasantly odd, but not especially high on the WTF meter.

If Season 12 comes anywhere close to weirdness, it’s thanks to The Continue reading “IDIOT CONTROL NOW”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – THE GAUNTLET

CAPSULE: YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951)

DIRECTED BY: Lou Breslow

FEATURING: , Joyce Holden, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake

PLOT: A dog is murdered for his vast fortune, then reincarnated as a human in order to solve the crime and protect his former caretaker.

Still from You Never Can Tell (1951)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Proving that high concept is not a recent phenomenon, You Never Can Tell is amiable and lighthearted, barely dipping its toe into the stranger implications of its premise. It’s perfectly pleasant.

COMMENTS: Deciding whether a movie is weird is complicated by the inescapable truth that weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. After you’ve watched enough movies with really strange storytelling and quizzical imagery, it can be easy to forget the simple charms of the unanticipated left turn. It occurred to me while watching You Never Can Tell that, while I was hardened to the oddball premise of a dog in human form, contemporary audiences must have been rendered speechless by the introduction of an animal purgatory lorded over by a lion and populated by a veritable peaceable kingdom. For most readers here, this is a minor obstacle to overcome, but even today, there are certainly audiences for whom it is a bridge too far.

The story of King the German shepherd cum Rex Shepard, Private Detective is built on a quirky idea, but once you get past the supernatural premise, you’re left with a pretty square whodunit. In fact, the villain is identified for us early on, putting a lot of pressure on our interest in King’s voyages through the human world to carry the film. That means you have to really have to be committed to the quest of Dick Powell to bring his own killer to justice, and between his laid-back performance and the script’s cavalier attitude toward its own plotting, he really doesn’t pull it off. In fact, You Never Can Tell is an interesting blip in Powell’s remarkably diverse filmography, running the gamut from the song-and-dance man of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 to a hard-bitten private eye in Murder, My Sweet and Cornered. (To say nothing of his eventual gig directing the notorious cancer vector The Conqueror). Powell’s turn as private eye pup plays his tougher image for laughs, but other than a propensity for growling and a fondness for kibble, there’s not much to the performance. It’s light, wisely underplayed, but pretty straight and narrow.

If Powell doesn’t make the most of his role, co-star Joyce Holden absolutely does and then some. As Golden Harvest, a racehorse accompanying King as the detective’s confidential secretary, she gets to have all the fun he can’t. With her on-the-nose attire, inch-thick Kentucky accent, and propensity for horse metaphor and picking winners at the track, she is exactly the freewheeling comic relief the movie wants her to be. In fact, her antics hint at a completely different movie than the one that is developing as Rex tracks down his murderer. In that storyline, his pining for his old four-legged life (at one point, he literally steps over his own grave) is matched by the bittersweet longings of his former caretaker, Ellen. The mix of wacky hijinks and earnest grief is at least as weird as any of the rules of the animal kingdom’s afterlife.

Much of the stranger aspects of the premise are left unexplored, or even deliberately sidestepped, such as the deus ex animalis that justifies the climactic romantic pairing. Is it interspecies love if they’re the same species now? But what if the romantic interest started before that? Is this the story of the love of a beast for its keeper? How many of the humans we encounter on the street are merely animals returned to Earth in an inferior form? What are the implications of procreation in this universe, what is human anyway, and what will the sex be like? You Never Can Tell definitely has more potential for weirdness than it exploits, and possibly more than it knows.

You Never Can Tell is the kind of movie you could easily see being remade every dozen years or so, just to give new comedic talents a chance to unleash their inner hounds. It’s incredibly easy to picture this as a vehicle in the late 1990s. (Likely 2019 casting: Kevin Hart as Rex, Kate McKinnon as Goldie.) So it’s notable that the only (unacknowledged) remake of the film thus far, Oh, Heavenly Dog, flipped the script by reincarnating a human (Chevy Chase) as a dog (Benji). Maybe you need an actual animal to get more into character.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This weird premise makes for a funny, inventive comedy. The dog and horse may be human in form, but they’re still animals. Some hilarious scenes play off this, and I won’t give any away. It’s a one-joke movie, sure, but it’s a funny joke, and one that can last the full running time without wearing thin.” – Samuel Stoddard, At-A-Glance Film Reviews

(This movie was nominated for review by Ed. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LIKE ME (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Mockler

FEATURING: Addison Timlin, Larry Fessenden, Ian Nelson

PLOT: A teenager embarks on a low-impact crime spree in support of her burgeoning social media presence, but feels pressured to escalate in the face of blistering online criticism.

Still from Like Me (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Off-kilter sound, picture, and editing all combine to keep viewers on unsteady footing throughout, but Like Me ends up being a lot like the cereal its heroine grossly consumes: empty calories, all color and no nutrition.

COMMENTS: To be a creator of any kind—whether your forum be art or music or performance or, God help you, a writer of online movie reviews—is to crave an audience. Even if you yourself want no part of the attendant fame and controversy, the compulsive need to be heard remains. Sia may hide behind surreal dance routines and bichromatic wigs, Banksy might destroy his own work by remote control, even the mind behind the reboot of “Nancy” might prefer to fly under the radar, but they all still have something to say and want you to listen. You may have already noticed me , waving meekly at you in hopes that you will heed what I have to say about offbeat cinema. It’s no small knock on this writer that the most comments I have ever received on this website came not from a careful consideration of an epic montage or a dissection of the cinematic adaptation of one of theater’s seminal works, but rather for that time I caused a controversy by mentioning an alert to sensitive material with insufficient care. I mean, we all just want to be loved.

Kiya, the teenage protagonist of Robert Mockler’s debut feature, understands instinctively the importance of being heard, and she’s coming to realize how it is equally valuable to have something to actually say. Twice, she asks another character to “Tell me a story,” as if she knows that she is an empty vessel who desperately needs something hearty and substantial to fill her up and give her meaning. She never really gets that need met, though, and instead fills her days with hopelessness and her nights with making videos of humiliating pranks which a portion of the population devours as rich content.

Mockler has real visual flair. His jittery camera, rapid-fire editing, random imagery, and electrified color palette all speak to a deliberate and ambitious cinematic strategy. He isn’t shy about using his bag of tricks, most notably in a nightmare sequence where Kiya’s beat-up clunker motors through a candy-colored underwater bubblescape in a 900-degree long take, like Children of Men on shrooms. But what soon becomes apparent is that the weirdness is less of a mission than it is joint compound; cinematic spackle smoothing over the emptier, more aimless stretches of the thin plot. Unusual imagery does help put us inside the mindset of our quixotic, sometimes drug-buzzed protagonist, but more often than that it’s padding.

Like Me is undoubtedly titled ironically, as it’s next to impossible to like anyone in it. As Kiya’s online nemesis, Burt, spews venom at her online art project, it’s possible to agree with his harsh assessment of the pointlessness of her efforts and the vapidity of those who would lavish their attention on her while simultaneously concluding that he is an obnoxious blowhard. Her hostage-collaborator, Marshall, is both a pitiable figure for his predicament (I kept worrying about his unattended motel) and a wretched, pathetic loser. Even a little girl we meet at a service station is corrupt, shooting everything she sees with a toy gun “because it’s fun.” And then Kiya herself, played with real movie magnetism by Addison Timlin, is strangely the most compelling of all, managing to be intriguing despite having no clear inner life whatsoever. Not likeable at all, mind you. But fascinating.

There’s a lot of talent on display in Like Me, and enough of an understanding of the allure and the method of the wired world to give it verisimilitude rarely found in more mainstream films. But the whole of the movie is so much less than the sum of its parts; it can warn of the hollowness of our way of life or stoke incipient distaste for affirmation measured in followers and thumbs-ups. But once it has our attention with its sharp imagery and flowery language, nothing of consequence lingers. Which I guess is a red flag for all of us who insist on sharing our voices with the universe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an impressionistic portrait of modern estrangement, using all manner of stylistic devices to capture his protagonist’s tumultuous psyche. The film’s lack of a traditional narrative will no doubt alienate many, but for the more adventurous, it offers a uniquely weird take on loneliness and lunacy.” – Nick Schager, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kaho, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Megumi Kagurazaka

PLOT: A clan of vampires forced to live in hiding attempt to tip the scales of power by capturing a group of humans in their hotel fortress and turning them into a generational supply of food; however, their perennial aboveground enemies have conspired to birth an avenger during a cosmic convergence, and now that she has come of age, the final battle between the two warring forces is at hand.

Still from Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being a TV miniseries, and therefore technically beyond our purview, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” has a difficult time figuring out what it wants to be. Although it is built upon a foundation of gore and slapstick and features elaborate and sometimes confusing worldbuilding, the story works best at a character level, focusing on the motivations of its complicated leads. At its best, the weirdness tends to be more window dressing than of a true mission of the series.

COMMENTS: Following my lengthy discourse on the cinematic genre of vampires, as well as my brief sojourn into the vault of the Nikkatsu film studio, watching this 9-part bloodsucker miniseries felt a bit like old home week. Fortunately, that’s not to say it was boring to watch Sion Sono’s take on the legend. Far from it; as much as he may be cherry-picking his favorite parts of the mythos, what he has created is anything but a retread.

If anything, Tokyo Vampire Hotel has way too much going on. The very first episode opens with a deeply uncomfortable mass shooting, which serves as a springboard for the kind of violence-chase set pieces that would be completely at home in an 80s Hollywood action movie. But this quickly fractures into a character study of our two heroines: Manami, an orphan raised under trying circumstances to become the vanquisher of an entire race of vampires, and K, the underground defender whose unrequited love is consistently co-opted for the violent means of others. When not delving into their backstories, Sono is creating the candy-colored, blood-drenched world of the titular hotel, populated by eccentric characters that include a vampire queen who keeps shrinking into nothingness, a wildly attired, dreadlocked hepcat whose own father sold him to vampires as a baby in exchange for becoming Japan’s prime minister, and a maternal figure who may be housing the entire hotel within her nether regions. Add into that a ballroom full of lovelorn humans who have been lured into the hotel (and for whom seemingly every one is provided a rich backstory), a cult of hippie-like Romanians who are connected to Tokyo by tunnel, and a late-series jump forward in time that almost completely restarts the story, and the effect is downright dizzying. It’s legitimately weird, but after a while, it becomes a “Mad Lib” kind of weird: oddness courtesy of dissonance.

Which only makes it all the more astonishing that Sono then carved Continue reading CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

CAPSULE: IMAGES (1972)

“I think, when I grow up, I’m going to be exactly like you.” – Susannah (Cathryn Harrison)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Altman

FEATURING: , , Marcel Bozzuffi, Hugh Millais,

PLOT: An author finds herself plagued by visions of lovers past and increasingly losing her grip on reality.

Still from Images (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Images is a mystery of the mind, providing a striking visual representation of the heroine’s mental collapse. The subject matter provides a platform for unmoored imagery and encourages confusion, which heightens the WTF effect of the movie. But it’s not so strange that it defies understanding or logic, and its oddities now play as innovations for thrillers and psychological horror stories to come.

COMMENTS: Robert Altman is one of those filmmakers distinctive enough to have merited his own adjective. “Altmanesque” sits comfortably on the shelf alongside “ian” and “ian” and “Spielbergian.” But Altman himself seems to resist such easy categorization. You think he’s about sprawling casts, like in Nashville or M*A*S*H? Surely his fingerprints are just as evident in the one-man powerhouse Secret Honor. Appreciate his focus on real but insular universes, as in The Player or Pret-a-Porter? How about the cartoony Popeye or obtuse Quartet? It’s important to remember that defining Altman is as much about his unwillingness to be defined.

Images does not, at face value, seem like a comfortable fit in the Altman oeuvre. Filmed abroad, centered around a single character with a small supporting cast, incorporating surreal and supernatural elements, it doesn’t outwardly share much DNA with, say, Short Cuts. But his trademark use of improvisation (Altman is credited as screenwriter, but evidently he came to the actors with a rough outline each morning as a jumping-off point for the day’s filming, an approach he would use again in 3 Women) and found materials (York herself wrote her character’s children’s book, which serves as a quasi-narrator) are both indicative of the director’s modus operandi. That he was able to marry this decidedly freewheeling approach to a genre and subject matter that would seem to demand deliberate plotting and rigid oversight are a strong measure of his skill.

Altman manages to be both clever and pretentious with some of his stylistic choices. The simple mechanism of having one actor go behind a wall and another emerge from the other side is used to great effect here, constantly surprising us and Cathryn, our increasingly unstable heroine. (She even manages to surprise herself more than once, both literally and figuratively.) On the other hand, tricks like jumbling the actors’ names to come up with the characters’ monikers only call attention to themselves, making the film’s issues seem trite. York’s towering performance manages to meld the excesses of a nervous breakdown with deft emotional subtlety, but her work is frequently undercut with blatantly obvious symbolism, like the prisms, lenses, and mirrors that practically litter the screen, broadcasting her fracturing psyche at the highest volume. For every moment of delightful surprise, there’s also an eye-roll to match.

It’s a sign of York’s strength in the role that she is so convincing and deserving of our empathy, especially considering how her mania is evidently inspired by three very dull men. Marcel is a callous bully, Rene an obtuse void, and Hugh a complete and utter drip. In fact, Hugh is such a dishrag with his cavalier dismissals of his wife, his perfunctory affections, his witless repetitions, and his truly wretched jokes, that his ultimate fate does not hit as hard as it probably should. These vacuous men only serve to highlight her much more interesting relationship with adolescent Susannah, who pulls off a mix of precociousness and mystery while still being believably young.

Altman has crafted a perfect atmosphere; the breathtaking Irish countryside is an appropriately solid spooky backdrop for the story, while the combination of John Williams’ jump-scare score and the jarring soundscape (credited with weird bluntness thusly: “Sounds – Stomu Yamash’ta”) keep everything on edge throughout the film.

For a time, Images was thought to be lost, and its rediscovery and availability on Blu-ray and streaming video is welcome, both for completists Altman fans and for anyone who wants to see how a cinema legend tackles an unexpected genre. But it’s ultimately good-not-great, and whatever else we may expect of Robert Altman, we definitely don’t anticipate landing somewhere in the middle.

One piece of verisimilitude to which I must tip my cap: the opening credits depicts Cathryn trying to write her latest book. In the process, she drapes herself over the couch, curls up on the floor, turns everything into a writing desk, contorts herself every which way in her search for the right words. I recognize all of these actions, all of these behaviors, as part of the agonizing process of turning thoughts into text. Writing is a physically taxing struggle, she seems to say. Girl, I feel you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

”’Oh, we’re in for one of those movies,’ I thought as Images trotted out strange doppelgangers, obsessively peering cameras, and phantoms that either aren’t there at all, or are taking the place of real people. It’s frustrating until Susannah York’s sensitive performance starts to sink in. These Twilight Zone-inflected weird tales usually end up in a trite twist of fate, or fold in on themselves in solipsistic self-worship. Images has real intelligence beyond its cleverness… It’s not a picture for a lazy viewer, that’s for sure.”–-Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant (DVD)

CAPSULE: SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards, Barbara Millicent Roberts, Ken Carson

PLOT: The dizzying rise and tragic fall of the honey-voiced pop star is dramatized in the context of the ailment that killed her, as embodied by inanimate plastic fashion dolls.

Still from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The use of dolls to perform a celebrity tell-all while simultaneously deconstructing the societal conditions that lead women into eating disorders is unusual in and of itself, without even getting into the strange collage of tones packed into 43 minutes. But the film’s legal unavailability and overall student amateurishness land it just shy of our list.

COMMENTS: Todd Haynes is earnest. It’s a quality that is remarkably out-of-step with our postmodern, irony-chasing, take-the-piss-out times. Who is this weirdo who insists on taking people at face value? In films like Far From Heaven, Carol, and even the recent Wonderstruck, he trusts in his characters to be open and honest even when they are being deceptive, a quality which is somehow more distancing to a modern audience than a detached remove.

Superstar demonstrates that he possessed this quality all along. In this, his M.F.A. dissertation film, Haynes takes on all the tropes of the celebrity biopic without a trace of irony. Like a soft-rock Esther Blodgett, innocent Karen is plucked from behind the drum kit to become the voice and face of The Carpenters, launching the sibling act into the pop music stratosphere. Just as quickly, the insecure girl falls prey to her own flawed self-image and heaps of abuse from her family, leading her to an equally meteoric crash.

At first glance, it seems like a parody of a Lifetime celebrity TV movie, but there’s Haynes’ earnestness again. Karen is a truly pitiable character, seen here as particularly ill-equipped for the pressures of stardom, despite her perpetual smile. Nearly everyone in her life is either carelessly or viciously cruel to her, and no one is more villainous than the version of Richard we meet here. Vindictive from the start (“I’ve found your singer,” Mom says, only to be met with Richard’s bitter rejoinder, “And lost me my drummer”), he browbeats his younger sister, bellowing at her about the damage she is doing to their career, harangues that are set to the impossibly rich harmonies of the siblings’ songs. So it’s hardly a surprise that he would set out to squash the film—successfully.

And then there’s the other story Haynes wants to tell: the tragically overlooked problem of anorexia itself. The movie gets pretty strange as Haynes starts to weave in a somewhat amateurish documentary about the disorder. The footage is ham-handed, with man-on-the-street interviews straight out of a 7th grade health film. But the facts themselves are horrifying, as we peel back the panoply of societal pressures Karen endured. It’s as if two very different movies were competing for the screen, and that’s even before Haynes goes in for an indictment of society at large, juxtaposing Carpenters songs against footage of Nixon, Vietnam, and even the Holocaust. It’s kind of pretentious, in that way that only young people who’ve just discovered a really impressive idea can be. But Haynes consistently gets away with it, thanks to his pure commitment.

On top of all that, let’s talk about the Barbie dolls. Like the lamest of puppets, these fashion dolls are propped up and posed to the accompanying soundtrack, standing perfectly still even as we’re supposed to imagine them belting out some of the biggest hits of the 70s, and damn if it doesn’t work. Barbie ends up being a perfect stand-in for Karen Carpenter: an impossible standard for beauty who is (literally) manipulated by everyone around her. Todd Haynes feels deeply for this put-upon, disfigured piece of plastic, and so do we.

Although Richard Carpenter’s legal action turned Superstar into a banned treasure (he cannily sidestepped any charges of over-defensiveness by going after the film’s liberal and unauthorized appropriation of the band’s songs, rather than its ruthless assassination of his character), the film has never completely gone away. Bootleg videos, occasional surprise museum screenings, and the electronic frontier have all kept the movie close enough for anyone who really wants to see it. A simple Google search should lead the curious to a lo-fi version of what is already a lo-fi production.

In the final scene, real hands take over for the doll extremities we have seen so far, and one fleeting image of the real Karen flickers in and out, like her life. We often talk about art as a way to get at a more substantial truth. Superstar manages to go one better, using extreme artifice to get at the heart of one very real, very broken human being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… daringly peculiar… The film’s tragedy works in tandem with its tastelessness for a nightmarish effect not too far removed from one of David Lynch’s explorations of concealed horror…” – David Pountain, Filmdoo

(This movie was nominated for review by Kelsey Osgood, and then unknowingly seconded by Lovecraft in Brooklyn. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.