They'd Only Just Begun

Washington U. gags on a plan to screen a controversial Karen Carpenter biopic

In the sixteen years since its release, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Todd Haynes' 1987 film about singer Karen Carpenter's struggle with anorexia nervosa, has become a cult classic. In 2003, Entertainment Weeklyranked the film as one of its "Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time."

All things considered, Superstar would seem an ideal fit for a screening at an art exhibition exploring issues related to women's health. And indeed, the folks at Washington University's Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum selected the film for a January 28 screening in conjunction with the museum's recently opened three-month-long extravaganza Inside Out Loud: Visualizing Women's Health in Contemporary Art.

But at the eleventh hour, museum officials changed their minds.

In the 43-minute film, Karen Carpenter is portrayed by a Barbie doll. Her brother Richard, the other half of the legendary singing duo, is portrayed by a Ken doll. Director Haynes has the dolls act out the story of the Carpenters as they rise to megastardom, and then as Barbie-as-Karen gradually becomes obsessed with her body image, weight-loss and food.

But in making Superstar, Haynes failed to obtain the rights to use any of the Carpenters songs that are featured throughout. Within a year of its release, the Carpenter estate and Richard Carpenter, along with A&M Records, sued to prevent Superstar's sale and distribution.

The fact that the plaintiffs prevailed has only enhanced the film's notoriety. Bootleg copies have worked their way through the underground circuit, and the 43-minute film is readily available for download on the Internet.

Washington University spokesman Liam Otten says that when they scheduled the screening, Inside Out Loudcoordinator Stephanie Parrish and the show's curators were aware that the film was controversial, but they weren't aware that a ban on its screening remained in force. "When we first looked at it, it seemed a good fit for the series," says Otten. "The controversy had seemed as though that was part of the history of the film; I guess we hadn't realized that it was still a live wire, so to speak."

As the screening date approached, museum officials began to get nervous. "The gallery did a bit of research and started looking for precedents for other showings of the film," Otten recounts. The research, he says, turned up underground film-festival screenings and gallery showings, "but not really any institutional-level, film festival-type showings. It didn't really look like we had the right to show it."

Otten says Parrish and her colleagues decided to cancel the screening without discussing their concerns with the university's legal counsel. "It was Stephanie in the end who made the call, though she consulted with other members of the staff," he says. (Parrish did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment for this story; for more about Inside Out, see Ivy Cooper's "Distaff Meeting," published in the January 19 Riverfront Times.)

Was Parrish inordinately gun-shy? Danica Mathes, an attorney at the St. Louis law firm Blumenfeld Kaplan & Sandweiss who specializes in entertainment and intellectual property, is familiar with Superstar's history and isn't convinced a Wash. U. screening would have been illegal. "Had [Washington University] been using it specifically in a classroom, that probably would have fallen under the educational fair use of the copyright law," Mathes theorizes. But the fact that the event was part of an art exhibition that was open to the public muddies the issue, the attorney concedes. "There's a lot of legal problems with it. It's been in a courtroom and the judge said, essentially, 'If you guys can't come to an agreement on the use of all of this copyrighted footage, then you guys can't display this film.'"

The film's recent track record, however, suggests that perhaps you can.

In 2004 Superstarwas screened at a number of public venues, including the Femina Potens art gallery in San Francisco, and the Miami Beach Cinemateque, a south Florida art cinema -- presumably without incident. "We showed it as part of an evening-long program of banned films," reports Chris Kriofski, an employee at yet another venue, the Coolidge Corner Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the film screened last March. "Superstarwas the anchor, and we showed it along with similarly themed shorts." Kriofski says the theater received no complaints from the Carpenter estate.

Superstar is obtainable online at illegal-art.org, a Web site dedicated to questioning intellectual copyright laws. "There's a lot of gray areas in copyright law," says Carrie McLaren, who organized the 2002 traveling exhibit of banned works that led to the creation of illegal-art.org. "It depends on the context in which the works appear. When you're criticizing and educating copyright law, you've got a better defense than you would if you're just showing a film and making money off the screening."

McLaren says she has never been contacted by the Carpenter estate. "In most cases, these things don't go to court," she says. "[Washington University] would have a defense if Richard Carpenter went after them. But it wouldn't be worth it for Richard Carpenter to go after Washington University. It would make him look bad, and it would draw more attention to the case. Fighting it only promotes the film even more. But they're not even willing to take that risk."

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