Director: Robert Greene
15 | 1h 52min | Documentary | 14 October 2016 (UK). Also out on DVD from Dogwoof on 14 November.
Playing London Film Festival 2016
In a quirk of fate that feels surreally appropriate, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine is the second film about Sarasota, Florida news anchor Christine Chubbock - who sensationally killed herself live on air in 1974 - to be seen in UK cinemas this year. The other, Antonio Campos’s Christine, dramatizes the last few weeks in the life of Chubbock, in a complex but sympathetic portrait that works to restore the human behind the myth to the forefront of our minds. Greene’s film focuses on Chubbock’s last weeks too, but takes a very different and intriguingly off-centre approach, exploring not only Chubbock’s movements, personality and our hunger as a viewing public for sensational subject matter, but even that old chestnut: the very idea of cinematic truth.
Greene takes an idiosyncratic approach to documentary filmmaking here, walking the line between fiction and nonfiction. The way he tackles this decades-old but still-sensitive story might seem somewhat pretentious to read on paper, but makes a whole of sense when you consider both the concerns Chubbock had expressed about the growing ‘blood and guts’ culture of modern news media (indeed, her bizarre on-air suicide note mentioned this very phenomenon, leading to yet more, endless speculation), and our well-documented and unending hunger as a species to pick apart the lives of those who ended theirs, until we understand why they did what they did’. Thus, even as Greene’s camera follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards) as she prepares to play Christine Chubbuck, in what we are told is a biopic of her life during her last days, things are complicated by the fact that this documentary of a film is itself a work of fiction. There never was a Greene-directed Chubbock biopic in the works.
What are we seeing then? Taking the conceit at face value, we are seeing Kate Lyn Sheil (excellent here, particularly at conveying the sense of growing unease at being lost in the Russian doll project) gradually adopting the look and mannerisms of Chubbock to fit the requirements of the screenplay, which involves everything from 70s-styled wig fittings to a spray tan. As the camera team follows her around, we see her visit Chubbock’s house, make copious notes about her movements during her final days, and talk to some of the reporter’s former colleagues, not all of whom are as complimentary as you’d expect.
There is something compelling but also unsettling about all this, as Sheil is almost literally walking in a dead woman’s shoes at certain points. Surprisingly, we learn she is doing this without ever having seen footage of Chubbock or having heard her voice, a reminder that the death of Chubbock is a pre-internet folk myth and no video available exists of her death, a kind of tragic irony (which Greene has confessed to being fascinated by and which inspired him to make this film) given how public Chubbock’s suicide was, an act she presumably wanted to be seen by as many people as possible. Sometimes, things get elude even the gods of Youtube. When Sheil finally sees footage of Chubbock provided via the VHS of a former staffer at her studio (who clearly finds the project distasteful), it feels both like the unearthing of a rare stone, and a sort of confrontation by a violated victim.
Yet, with no explanatory text or voiceover provided on screen to inform us who we are seeing sharing the screen with Sheil, and with Sheil captured at various stages both as ‘herself’ and made up as Chubbock, a tantalising blurring of the reality/fiction line soon begins to set in, which gets even more complicated when you consider Sheil is ‘acting’ as ‘herself’ too. For one thing, it isn’t always clear when we hear her narrating from notes if Sheil is relating Chubbock’s diaried thoughts, or interjecting her own, especially as she clearly sympathises with Chubbock’s experiences of - amongst other things- misogyny in her career. And are these former colleagues of Chubbock actually the real people, or just actors themselves? At times we see Sheil as Chubbock rehearsing scenes from her last days with other cast members taking the roles of other familiar members and colleagues, but its not clear when they are slipping into and out of character. Is what we are seeing commentary, or ‘the real thing’, their ‘real thoughts’ when they discuss Christine in the third person? When Sheil starts to crack (or acts as if she is cracking) on camera under the pressure of a role she admits is problematic from a moral and technical standpoint, it is impossible not to see parallels between this and the deep trouble Chubbock seemed to have with the compromises she felt modern news guidelines were forcing on her. Chubbock felt the news was becoming unreal; Greene’s approach effectively bakes that fear into his film’s very DNA, as well as reminding us no documentary is ‘real’ anyway given –amongst other things - all final cuts involve choices and viewers rarely learn what went on when the footage was captured.
Of course, the film is also operating as an investigation into the art and ethics of acting. We see Shiel become increasingly frustrated at having little understanding of her ‘character’ and agitated about what she begins to see as her film’s own dubious fascination with Chubbuck’s death, with the project demanding she even re-enact the scene where Chubbock buys a handgun in the same store she bought it. Much of her time is spent engaging in production work that seems either pedantic or distracting, in some cases - in the case of being set up with a blank firing gun and blood air hose to re-enact the suicide- tasteless in the extreme too. It doesn’t seem to conjure up Christine for her.
This depiction of an artistic dead-end feels like Greene’s way of shielding, even honouring Chubbock, suggesting that trying to ‘explain’ away via a careless biopic approach the mindset of a person who carried out such a complex act of self-harm is probably a fruitless exercise anyway. With Kate Plays Christine, subject and film form mesh perfectly to explore questions about our own selves and our consumption of popular culture - putting the spotlight on us, and not Christine Chubbock.