Kate Plays Christine (2016) unfolds as an unavoidably nauseating experience of speculative fiction. It is an inventive and relentlessly self-conscious document of biographical storytelling. It is entirely immersive and deeply unsettling and pushes itself to constantly implicate and/or interrogate its very creation. Its sensational subject and layers of rigorous scrutiny blur its devices and motivations. It actively avoids conclusions and yet sometimes provides them in spite of itself. On some level it resists description which it reminds us can, at best, be only an iteration of events and retrospective conjecture. It flaunts its subjectivity while also sternly condemning it. At its most stirring the film is a frank, real time examination of depression, performance, the narrative of living and the simple yet elusive search for meaning in existence. In discussing it I feel obliged to acknowledge the immediate distancing I apply to its problems to manage them. This film can be maddening and harrowing and also bracingly illuminating in rapid movements. It is remarkable and difficult and stunning. I also feel that responding to it immediately after viewing will doubtless do it some disservice.
The film, directed and edited by Robert Greene, is built on what could be an almost absurdly contentious rebuke to the classic style of biopic. Rising action and notions of verisimilitude are eschewed in favor of an aggressively complex documentary form. The result adheres strictly to the title; we are given a document of actress Kate Lyn Sheil’s process of portraying Christine Chubbuck. Chubbuck was a Florida journalist who, in 1974 just shy of her thirtieth birthday, shot and killed herself during a live broadcast. She announced her suicide as an exclusive apex of news media’s fixation on “blood and guts.” The event was a grisly media spectacle of real tragedy that had been largely forgotten. Casting this project in timely relief is another, more strictly narrative film detailing the event titled Christine (2016) and starring Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck. The timing of these is evidently coincidental, but lends Greene’s experiment a further dimension of cultural gravity. Which will resonate more broadly with audiences seems predictable and will likely reinforce certain criticisms contained herein. While this picture’s concept could easily be mired in abstract theorizing, Sheil anchors it and renders it something far more emphatically human. The actress’s empathy and frustration and struggle to understand her subject provide a personal vector for the viewer. What begins as a study in craft acquires a twisted intimacy and voyeuristic thrill. It is a strange journey to watch her stagey “playing dress-up” morph subtly into unstable and depressive identification. As a study in hopelessness it achieves moments of startling clarity. Reenacting depression gives way, by and by, to actual depression. The confused and degenerative effect on display through Sheil is brutally fascinating. While the film sporadically stages moments from Christine’s life we see an actress full of bewildered conjecture become increasingly irrational, defensive and despondent. The process is truly stunning as it unravels artifice unveiling a bluntly masochistic aspect of performance. Chubbuck’s impetuous indictment of sensational violence is made manifest as a prickly trap.
Kate Plays Christine manages to become more interesting and vastly more uncomfortable in its unpacking of the celebrated mania of fame. The suicide was expressly and purposefully public. Chubbuck unusually requested that her show be taped on the day she ended her life. In one sense she seems to have morbidly applied a measure of journalistic integrity to the coverage of her death. In describing her intention she refers to “attempted suicide” as it would be presumptive and possibly inaccurate to assume she would be successful. She was somewhat perversely cool and objective. On the other hand her sarcastic appeal to popular mayhem betrays a seething resentment and grandiose final judgement. Suicide ultimately ends despair and suffering but the broadcast seeks to point the finger and twist the knife.
Kate Lyn Sheil immediately and forcefully frames desire for recognition as an unhealthy symptom of insecurity. She largely attributes her art to anxiety at being dully ordinary and going unnoticed. She defines her greatest motivation or aspiration as simply a need to be seen. She is uncommonly forthright about her uncertainty and in so doing embodies a stirringly universal crisis. Performance, in all its little forms, seeks the impossible validation of existence. A Florida historian describes two deaths: the end of your life and the last time you are spoken about. Kate Plays Christine knowingly extends this life while openly questioning its worth. If your life becomes a gesture or a footnote, what does it benefit you? Your family? The film ponders the possibly appropriative “tribute” of the uncommonly irate hit Network (1976). That film’s writer, Paddy Chayefsky, denied a connection to Chubbuck but the themes are eerily similar. Sheil laments a real woman being rebranded as a furious and violent man. Like so many people in Christine Chubbuck’s life Network edits and rewrites her meaning. There is an even-handed futility to all our actions; even in death they are ultimately subject to interpretation.
Kate Plays Christine
dir. Robert Greene
Screened 11/4-11/6 @Brattle Theatre