A documentary designed to confront the kinds of thorny issues most filmmakers would prefer to ignore.
Kate Plays Christine (Sundance Review)
In 2014, Robert Greene premiered his documentary Actress, about his neighbour and former TV star who, after leaving the entertainment industry to become a stay-at-home mom, tries to get back into acting again. On paper, Actress looked like a story of someone pursuing their passion again and facing the greater obstacles that come with time, but Greene had bigger ideas in mind than a simple portrait of his neighbour’s rebooting of her career. The film explored the conflict between performance and nonfiction, and as Actress’ authenticity came into question, so did the preconceived notion of documentary filmmaking as inherently objective or truthful. Compared to the glut of modern documentaries constructed as passive, information-based experiences, Actress was a difficult—and memorable—piece of “non-fiction.”
In some ways, Kate Plays Christine extends the ideas and themes of Actress, albeit through a more ambitious and provocative lens, traversing through darker subject matter in its quest to confront the thorny issues of ethics and responsibility most documentarians would prefer to ignore. The object of Greene’s fascination is Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter in Sarasota, Florida who hosted the local talk show Suncoast Digest. On a Monday morning in 1974 during a live broadcast, Chubbuck made a statement about her station providing “blood and guts” television before shooting herself in the head with a revolver. Not many people outside of a few Sarasotans caught Chubbuck’s suicide, and any tapes of the incident have long been destroyed, but news of her death made national news, even inspiring screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky to write the script for Network.
Now, with the four-decade anniversary of Chubbuck’s death approaching, Greene enlisted actress Kate Lyn Sheil (Sun Don’t Shine, Green) to play Christine in a film about her death. This gives Kate Plays Christine a set-up that operates like a strange, closed loop; the film documents Sheil preparing for her role, but the film within the film doesn’t actually exist. The only purpose of the Christine Chubbuck “biopic” is for Greene to document Sheil’s preparation, an indirect statement by Greene on how pointless he finds the endeavor of trying to fictionalize this sort of material.
That’s only the start of Greene’s deliberate clashes with what one might expect from a documentary of a tragic figure like Chubbuck, removing any clarity or explanation on what might have driven her to perform such a dramatic act. It’s a radical approach because of Greene’s refusal to provide any sense of solid ground, putting viewers right beside him and Sheil as they try to navigate the situation he’s put themselves in. The film exists within an uncertain present tense, avoiding direct messages or an editing style that suggests some sort of hindsight. It’s that lack of guidance, the feeling of actively engaging ideas and themes on the same level as the filmmakers rather than being dictated to, that can make Kate Plays Christine as exciting as it is frustrating.
Naturally, all of this uncertainty wreaks havoc on Sheil’s ability to prepare and perform for her role. Her goal is to give a performance that’s respectful and accurate in its portrayal of Chubbuck, but Greene stacks the deck against her. Aside from Sheil being unable to find any footage of Chubbuck to study, the film she’s acting in is done in a cheap, melodramatic style with no real connection outside of re-enacting known information about Chubbuck weeks before her death. Greene provides a perfect symbol for Sheil’s frustration when he tries shooting a scene of Christine going for a swim in the ocean, with Sheil’s wig falling off the entire time. It’s one thing for Sheil to look the part, but she will never embody or become Chubbuck.
The ambiguous space Kate Plays Christine occupies, while making it impossible not to have the film rattle around in the brain long after it ends, brings up a nagging question over whether or not Greene’s process shields him from criticism. There are moments where the film can feel aimless or messy, but it’s difficult to criticize an inherently flawed design. Greene himself has said that he wanted Kate Plays Christine to be a film that “almost falls apart as you watch,” and it’s hard not to feel that way during the (seemingly) scattershot final act.
Eventually, the film works towards a conclusion: the filming of Chubbuck’s suicide, which Sheil begins feeling hesitant about as she weighs the moral implications of tackling the role she’s signed on for. It’s in these final minutes, where Sheil begins acting out Chubbuck’s final news broadcast, that Greene acknowledges the corner he’s backed himself into. At this point, taking a moralistic route with filming the death would be hypocritical, but showing it would indulge in the same “blood and guts” entertainment Chubbuck called out before shooting herself. Amazingly, Greene gets himself out of this corner by playing out both scenarios in purposely unsatisfying ways. It’s an ending that will please no one—although the idea of wanting to walk away “pleased” by someone tragically taking their own life sounds a bit strange. Greene’s direction and Sheil’s performance help tackle the complexity of documenting Chubbuck’s life, along with interrogating the accepted methods documentaries use to explore these sorts of tragic profiles. Perhaps it’s best to take a page from Greene’s book and approach the conflicting elements with the kind of acute awareness he uses with his films: creating these kinds of clashes and juxtapositions shouldn’t make for easy viewing, and the fact that Kate Plays Christine remains so difficult to shake off should speak for itself.