Directed by: Robert Greene.
Written by: Robert Greene.
Starring: Kate Lyn Sheil.
It must have been odd watching both Antonio Campos’ Christine and Robert Greene’s Kate Play Christine at Sundance in January 2016. Both films are about the mostly forgotten Florida journalist, Christine Chubbock, who killed herself live on TV in 1974. In Campos’ film, Rebecca Hall gives one of the year’s best performances, as she gets inside the head of Chubbuck, and shows her descent into mental illness that led to that on air suicide – while the film as a whole does an excellent job of showing her specific mental state that led to what she did, as well as the overarching misogyny that was prevalent in the industry at the time that all women had to face. Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine is different – it’s a documentary about actress Kate Lyn Shiel, as she attempts to get ready to play Chubbuck in a movie for Greene, struggling with all what made Chubbuck tick, as well as why they are making a movie about her – ultimately deciding that you shouldn’t. There was nothing about Chubbuck’s life that would lend itself to a movie had she not killed herself – therefore any movie about her life is really just about her death – which is ghoulish and exploitive to a young woman who suffered from mental illness and then killed herself. Greene’s film is a direct rebuke of Campos’ film – even though Green had no idea Campos was making it at all.
Kate Plays Christine is an odd film. Kate Lyn Shiel is a fine actress – her biggest role may have been a recurring role on House of Cards – but she’s been great in small indies like The Heart Machine, Listen Up Phillip, You’re Next, The Sacrament and especially Sun Don’t Shine. She is often a quiet screen presence – she complains in the movie that she’ll scream if she hears a performance of hers described as subtle again – but that is what happens when you perform like Shiel does – it is mainly small, subtle gestures. She specializes in characters who are inscrutable – who others cannot quite figure out – and that includes the audience. If you were going to make a small movie about Christine Chubbuck – you may well actually cast Shiel in the role.
Throughout the film though, Shiel grows increasingly wary of playing the role at all. She interviews those few people who she can find who know or remember Chubbuck – tries to find video of her on TV (not the suicide – if that video still exists, it’s been locked up for decades). We see her go through makeup and hair tests – work with other actors (all Florida locals, who Greene interviews about their lives as well). Shiel becomes increasingly convinced that a movie about Chubbuck is wrong – that is exploitive and cruel. The very end of the film will be talked about for a while, as it seems to simultaneously be given the audience what they want, and chastising them for wanting it at the same time.
I don’t necessarily agree with every point that Kate Plays Christine makes. After all, I think that Campos’ film is excellent (better than this film – although both have their merits), and is respectful of Chubbuck. Yes, Greene and Shiel are correct – had Chubbuck not killed herself on live TV, you would never make a movie about her – but that doesn’t necessarily mean any movie about her is exploitation – even if the audience anticipates the ending from the beginning. Campos’ film is cold, but not unfeeling, and you really do sympathize with her throughout – Chubbuck comes across far better than perhaps anyone else in the film.
Yet, there is something ironic about making a film about Chubbuck because of the violent way she ended her life, given that her point in killing herself was to decry the increasing violence on news networks. She was an inspiration for Network as well – but Paddy Chayefsky turned her into the Mad as Hell Howard Beale, inside of the lonely, sick woman she was. We are, as the movie insists, a society of gawkers – and we’ve gotten worse in the decades since Chubbuck’s death. We do decry violence, while consuming it at every opportunity.
Shiel is an ideal actress to explore this. She is smart and funny – and she asks incisive questions. Greene’s camera is enamored with her (perhaps too much). The film is as much hers as it is Greene’s, and it is interesting to see her prepare for a role that ultimately she never really plays. I do have to wonder how genuine the film is – it seems to me that Greene and Shiel never intended to make a film about Chubbuck as much as make a film about how it’s wrong to make a film about Chubbuck.
Yet, the film remains a fascinating meta-narrative for our time, even if I don’t agree with all of it, it certainly gives you a lot to chew on and think about. Oddly, even though this film condemns Christine, it works better if you have seen that film before, if for no reason, it gives you more of a sense of who Chubbuck was before entering this movie. Seeing the film within in a few months is an odd experience – I can only imagine what it was like to see them during the same festival.