Rates: * * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? Recommended by fatiekitz.
In 1974 Christine Chubbuck, a news presenter on a local Florida TV network, shot herself during the evening broadcast, committing suicide live on air. The incident was the inspiration for the classic 1976 film ‘Network’, but has mostly receded into history. In 2016 a young actress, Kate Lynn Sheil, prepares to play Chubbuck in an unusual recreation of her life and death.
Director Robert Greene has made not exactly a documentary, and not exactly a biopic, but rather an atypical blending of both. The style made me think of ‘Adaptation’, Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman’s delerious attempt to adapt the plotless non fiction book ‘The Orchid Thief’. Watching ‘Kate Plays Christine’ is a bit like flipping through a scrapbook; there are interviews with people who knew Chubbuck, archival footage, and recreations of events from her life (some fictionalised).
At the centre is Sheil, grappling with her subject as part of her acting process. At the start of the film, several former colleagues of Chubbock tell the actress that she seems too soft and mousy to play her; ‘She had a real edge’, one says. But as Shiel dons a severe wig, and traces what she can of Chubbuck’s final days, she starts to develop her own edge, and it is fascinating to watch the character emerge from within the actor.
One of Shiel’s most difficult challenges is how to depict this woman, who she clearly grows to respect and identify with, as anything other than a tragic victim. There is something abhorent about suicide; it makes people uncomfortable, makes them want to forget. One TV news veteran states that they will report on crime and violence, anything, but never on suicide; the audience just does not want to see it. Someone destroying their own life somehow renders it invalid.
The paradox is that it is something that most people face, even in the abstract. Another former colleague of Chubbuck’s, an admirer, says: ‘If you’ve never had a suicidal thought, you haven’t been paying attention’. Mental health issues are rife in western society, and suicide rates are high, but it largely lurks in the shadows. One of the saddest elements of Chubbuck’s life is that she had no support network, no one to turn to, which is something that many people face.
Her life was also coloured by the sexism of the industry she worked in; her hard stories rejected, she often found herself consigned to frivolous news she had no interest in. This issue remains very topical, and here is evidence of the toxic impact lack of equality has; it clearly eroded the stability of a finely balanced person.
There are standout moments throughout, as the actor and director grapple with this challenging material. At one point, Shiel recreates Chubbuck’s wake on a Florida beach, stormclouds gather behind her, and then lightning flashes; turning the tone from poignant to otherworldly. Another great moment: the camera hovers in an empty TV control room, while multiple screens flicker and industrial white noise bleeds into the soundtrack. TV as a hostile, alien environment.
But the ultimate standout is the finale, as Shiel has to recreate the shooting, something she has regarded with growing apprehension. Part of it is: she clearly does not want Chubbuck to die. This is the wrong ending for this woman, and Shiel does not want to leave her behind. But it is also an inevitability, and the director and actor navigate a tricky course to find a fitting way to balance all the different elements they have discovered, without being trite. They don’t spare the audience either.
It is a powerful conclusion, to a really absorbing and emotional movie. I have grappled with mental health problems in my own life, and this really had an impact on me. A sad story, but also a lot more than just that.