#34: Dottie Gets Spanked
and  Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Dottie (USA, 1993; dir. and scr. Todd Haynes; cin. Maryse Alberti; with J. Evan Bonifant, Barbara Garrick, Julie Halston, Robert Pall, Adam Arkin, Harriet Sansom Harris)
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Superstar (USA, 1987; dir. Todd Haynes; scr. Todd Haynes and Cynthia Schneider; cin. Barry Ellsworth)
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Rebel cool: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story has been banned even more explicitly than The Baby of Mâcon was from U.S. distribution or home-format circulation, so that every time I watch it, and even more so when I teach it, the movie transmits the thrill of illegality. Just as cool, albeit less felonious: Dottie Gets Spanked was Superstar director Todd Haynes' response to a commission from PBS to make a short film for their American Families showcase series. American Families, but without the slightest twinge of Hallmark Hall of Fame. This not only demonstrates how much cooler public television is (or used to be) than people give it credit for but reminds us that, courtesy of artists like Todd Haynes and Marlon Riggs, the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s was not strictly relegated to Sundance and Rotterdam and cosmopolitan arthouses, but was making enormous inroads into every American household with a cable TV connection or a bunny-rabbit antenna. Still, despite the illicit pleasures and subversive energies of these two short films, Superstar and Dottie Gets Spanked have endeared themselves to me because they have carried off an even nobler, richer sleight of hand. Within their extremely mannered, highly persuasive disguises as concept-heavy thinkpieces, born unmistakably from an Ivy Leaguer's immersion in cultural semiotics and psychoanalytic theory, Superstar and Dottie smuggle inordinate wallops of feeling, decimating the lines between heart and intellect, theory and memory. They endow the act of scholarly provocation with the intimacy of a pillow-talk confession, the texture and tenderness of a velvet glove.

Which isn't to say that Superstar, in particular, ever relinquishes its biting, surgical edge. The conceit of reenacting the Passion of Karen Carpenter starring a repertory of plastic dolls makes for a hard, angular experience, especially since Haynes and his cinematographer, fellow Brown-alum Barry Ellsworth, light and frame the dolls with an emphasis on their tough, rigid plasticity. These aren't Mattel ads, with the backlight shimmering through Barbie's cornsilk blondness, and it's one reason that Superstar never once implies that it has settled for an easy, one-dimensional jab at commodity fetishism or ideals of beauty or American empty-headedness. Equally clear, unless, apparently, you're Richard Carpenter, is that the joke is never in any way on Karen. The fact that the dolls themselves are not a punchline is further illustrated by their own harrowing erosions; their faces are striated and their limbs diminished as the film continues, with an effect verging on horror. As he would later do with the color palette and musical onslaughts of Sirkian melodrama, Haynes pulls out what is gentle, what is suffused with emotional claims and starving for our affection within these unlikely objects, these swivel-headed, stiff-jointed figurines with their ill-fitting sweaters and their pitifully imploring gazes. He plays our instincts to feel charmed by or protective of these figures against the adult implications that they are the marionnettes of some unseen hand. Karen is being controlled, ruined, by something just as invisible but palpable as whatever is ruining Carol White in Safe, and so is Karen's snappish brother and so are their uncomprehending parents. They're all in the grip of something—Haynes is shrewd enough not to give it a name or a shape—but aspects of the Something are manifested in the combined impersonality and doe-eyed vulnerability of the dolls, in the melancholia of the Carpenters' lyrics and melodies and of Karen's singing, in the heartsick post-adolescent's desire to flee the parental thumb, in the temptations to funnel helpless concern into familial antagonism or to terrorize your body in a plaintive bid for some quantum of control. There is considerable wit in the movie: Richard's ornery priggishness would be a hoot if we weren't so worried about its toll on Karen; a hipster commentator on Karen's genius sounds indecipherably sincere and facetious as she praises the sophistication of the singer's distinctive vocalisms; the mother betrays a sort of violent excitement in the kids' success that recalls Kim Stanley's zealous and short-sighted ecstasies in Frances. There is plenty of edification, too, especially given that eating disorders weren't nearly as much of a media focus in 1987 as they are now, and there's quite a bit of fright: from the eerie, midnight-movie shot of Karen's ragdoll legs as she lies collapsed on the floor of her closet, and from the debatably tasteful incorporation of a shock-cut to Auschwitzian bodies being bulldozed into a dump. Unironic and utterly tasteful is the genuine, yearning compassion the film shows toward Karen, as sufferer but also as artist. Her voice retains a timeless, bell-like durability that the film all but denies itself; as Lucas Hilderbrand smartly argued, the cumulative effect of so much video piracy, now that Superstar only exists in the form of illegal copies of copies of copies, is that the movie itself suffers a version of Karen's anorexia, losing the battle of its own materiality in a way that only adds to the poignancy of Karen's plight.

If my heart goes out to Karen in Superstar, it practically sprints toward Steven Gale, the tiny protagonist of Dottie Gets Spanked and the poster-child of incipient actressexuality. Stevie loves Dottie Frank and Julie Andrews so much that he can't stop drawing them, and yet he absorbs so fully the nimbus of disapproval spouting from his father and drifting through the household that he folds one final drawing up neatly into halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds, sixty-fourths, and then he balls it up in a fistful of tin foil, and then she takes it outside in the middle of the night and buries his drawing under six inches of potting soil. I assume that it's impossible for any spectator to resist identifying with Stevie, blessed with the chance to meet his idol and then semi-rebuffed amid the royal encounter, angelic and adorable in his red ear-muffs or his little-boy housecoat, his lips perpetually damp with what he's just about to say (or deciding not to say). It's certainly impossible for me not to identify, given my own memories of writing pen-pal letters to Whitney Houston on my green dinosaur stationery. Haynes shows extraordinary sensitivity here in crafting a tale about queer youth without ascribing anything as specific or potentially anachronistic as a "sexuality" to his bashful young hero, who's still young enough for crayons and for recess on the playground, though he always sits it out on the bench, watchful and listening.

Without the kinds of direct, magnificent, obsessional templates that guided the look and feel of Far from Heaven (a perfect yellow rose of a movie, and still, at that, my least beloved of Haynes' films), Dottie Gets Spanked constructs a comparable, detailed, funny, sad, and specific diorama of the mid-century, middle-class lifeworld of upwardly mobile white folks. As iconic as Dottie is in decor, in other design elements, in character archetypes, and in its riffs on Lucy and Sigmund Freud, it's also a weirdly personal vision, not least when it incorporates an artifact as appealingly bizarre as that model molecule made of toothpicks and marshmallows that some poor schoolgirl is struggling to carry onto her schoolbus. Haynes isn't hiding that his own movie is as bizarre and as painstaking as that model: he's working out his thoughts about psychoanalytic theory, about the relations of gender to fandom, about a unique moment in U.S. popular culture, about the bonds between mothers and sons and female ideals, about what a squealing, doll-like eight-year-old girl could possibly mean when she lobs the word "Feminino!" as a pink grenade, an epithet, a term of playground derision. It's a heady, a potentially unwieldy stew of problems and talking-points. There are black-and-white fantasy scenes impossible to describe without making Dottie sound unbearably arch, like something made strictly around (and for) a university seminar table. But it isn't; it's for everybody; it's elegant and warm. It communicates by its own example that Steven can grow up safely, that there are others like him, and that they can be counted on to make art and to make room for the next generation of Stevens.

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