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By some strange happenstance, exactly 42 years after Christine Chubbuck took her own life during a Sarasota, Florida television news broadcast, two very different films have come into being about her life and eventual, more infamously recalled death. Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine is the more oblique of the two; rather than engaging with Chubbuck in a more straightforward narrative sense, the film instead confronts what it is to make a film about her unfortunate passing at all, through the lens of an actor struggling with that idea herself.
Kate Lyn Sheil, who’s probably familiar to anybody who’s seen an independent film in the past five years, is the documentary’s subject and its storytelling thrust all at once. Having been cast as Chubbuck in an independent production being shot in and around the news anchor’s Sarasota hometown, she heads south to research her role and try to understand with some insight the where and when and how of Chubbuck’s auspiciously public end. Sheil’s fervent approach to performance research is also rooted in morality, as much as anything. Early on, she notes how, despite Chubbuck’s suicide inspiring Paddy Chayefsky’s iconic screenplay for Network, that “Network took this depressed woman and made her a macho, angry man.” There’s an empathy to be had for Chubbuck’s story that extends well beyond its unsettling trappings; she was, above all, a profoundly sad woman who made an intensely visible demonstration of her sadness.
What Kate Plays Christine illustrates with power is just how difficult it is for even the most well-considered gestures to linger, no matter how brutal. In one sense, this is the anxiety Sheil struggles against throughout the process of preparing her resuscitation of Chubbuck. In another, it’s the way in which her research leads her through a series of encounters with people who, it could be argued, should have a better recollection of such a traumatic event than they ultimately do. An early chat with a Sarasota newscaster reviews a general callousness in the way the act is considered. Most residents, even those who were in town when the newscast happened, have little recollection of it beyond the simple fact of its occurrence.
And as she begins to sift through her research and attempt to get into character, in a way that might portray some kind (any kind) of deeper truth about Christine and who she was, Kate Plays Christine reveals itself as an inquiry of a deeper kind. That films are being made about her is, as Sheil acknowledges, more a function of the way in which she left the world than any real, humanistic interest. There’s a voyeurism to the incident that, while invited up to a point by the nature of it, is nevertheless crude beyond a point. And particularly in the case of the film-within-the-film for which she’s doing such extensive research, Kate Plays Christine returns throughout to the image of Sheil being outfitted with squibs for the “big scene” at the film’s climax, mirroring the reluctance on the performer’s part to linger so extensively over what could be argued to be the cheapest part of Chubbuck’s story in retelling.
Much of Kate Plays Christine is more of a form exercise than it is a documentary portrait, which works to both the film’s benefit and detriment. In the former category, Greene shoots the film with an intimate elegance that ably parallels Sheil’s journey into character; while some images border on the staged, artifice is something of an operative point of the film, and so while it may render some sequences distracting (particularly a walk through Chubbuck’s real-life home rendered at some angles that are frankly impossible without some prior staging), it’s nevertheless an effective means of illustrating Sheil’s inner turmoil regarding the role. Less effective are the sequences when the film turns its attention to the inner film’s costars, for they see Kate Plays Christine through a number of paces that feel either digressive or overly neat in illustrating the film’s larger ideas about the difficulties of performance and the parallels between one visual medium and another. (Even less helpful is the equation of artistic process with Chubbuck’s display, which is effective when related to Sheil and far less so in any other context in which the film introduces it.)
A more effective illustration of this point, and a less overtly explicit one, is a quote from Chubbuck’s autobiography, written at the age of 15, to which Sheil returns early and often throughout the production process: “If there’s anything that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s failure.” Failure hangs heavy over Kate Plays Christine, from the actor’s anxieties regarding an authentic and meaningful portrait to, in all honesty, the film within the film; if there’s one true distracting facet of the documentary, it’s the generally amateurish nature of the production. That Kate Plays Christine invites scrutiny as to how real any of the production ultimately is could be framed as either a deliberate artistic choice endemic of Greene’s commentaries, or it could just be a bad movie that invites the unfortunate question of exactly why Sheil is pouring so much of herself into such a film.
At one point, Sheil demands of the film’s director in regard to the suicide imagery being planned that “You have to tell me why you wanna see it.” And it’s this question that Kate Plays Christine ultimately approaches in its strange, sometimes questionable way. Why would anybody want to see it? And the documentary’s bitterest truth is that, perhaps, the urge to see it comes from a general inability to do so. Though Chubbuck had her producers tape the broadcast that day, allegedly only one copy still exists, long lost to privacy and time. And it’s that perverse interest in what exactly is on that tape that makes filmmakers develop projects about it, and draws actors to try and inhabit a person who would do such a thing. Yet ultimately, it’s a seething contempt for that idea that Kate Plays Christine settles upon, one that plays as duplicitous to a viewership that’s watched a two-hour reflection on that same concept.