At Sundance, Two Different Films Examine the Life and Myth of Christine Chubbuck

Photo: Sundance Film Festival

This year’s Sundance played host to one of the strangest double features in the festival’s history, with its screenings of Antonio Campos’s Christine and Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine. The former is a narrative drama starring Rebecca Hall about Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota TV journalist who committed suicide on the air in 1974; the latter is a documentary about the actress Kate Lyn Sheil researching and playing the part of Chubbuck. (For more about the 1974 incident and the search for footage of Chubbuck’s death, read my colleague Abraham Riesman’s deep-dive here.)

Aside from subject matter, the two movies are unrelated. In other words, one isn’t about the making of the other. In Kate Plays Christine, Kate Lyn Sheil isn’t preparing for a part in Christine; indeed, she isn’t preparing for a part in a separate film at all. This is not your typical making-of documentary, about someone working towards some predetermined end goal. The film, which won a Special Jury Award for Writing in a Documentary at the festival, is about the process itself, and we realize as it proceeds that the film Sheil is preparing for is the one we are watching.

Greene follows Sheil as she researches Chubbuck's life and career, talking to colleagues and friends and experts, reading up on suicide, having a wig made, and going to the tanning salon. She even visits the Bullet Hole, the store where Christine bought her gun, and has a clerk explain to her what kind of gun she should purchase, as a young woman. Then, she enters the store again, this time dressed as Christine, and the scene is recreated for our benefit, with the same clerk. Are we watching a stunt, a rehearsal, a scene from an imaginary film, an acting exercise? We’re never quite certain. That’s kind of the point.

Not unlike Greene’s previous work Actress, which was probably my favorite film of 2014, there’s a constant, questioning quality to Kate Plays Christine. This is a woman trying to leap out of her skin and into another’s, in an act not just of empathy but of inhabitation. She doesn’t merely want to nail the surface reality of this character — how she talked, looked, and acted — but to enter her psyche. “I have to learn as much about Christine Chubbuck,” she reflects. “But I also have to find out about the mind of a person who wanted to kill herself.” These echo an earlier observation Sheil made when talking about the pull of acting in general: “I do worry that this impulse is an unhealthy one.”

Greene's fascination with process drives his structure: When we do see the actual narrative scenes staged (with Sheil acting opposite local actors), they're almost comically broad and theatrical, like fragments from a bad soap opera. It’s not a “real” film Sheil is preparing for, which not only puts the lie to the goals-oriented structure of other process docs (person prepares for thing, person does thing, person succeeds at thing) but also draws our attention even more to the process itself. Greene draws our attention to the lie of fiction, but he also draws our attention to the lie of documentary. At one point, Sheil goes swimming in her Christine wig, and as the wig floats off her head and she tries to grab at it, we hear Greene’s voice off camera, muttering, “Stay away … Let it sink,” as the camera focuses on the wig drifting beneath the water. At another point, Sheil reads Christine’s diary and discusses her background, then notes to Greene’s camera that, as an actor, ordinarily, she would “sit at that desk and internalize all this, instead of delivering them in a monologue to you.” All this give-and-take — between author and subject, between fiction and nonfiction — lends the film a tantalizingly incomplete, ever-changing quality, like something that will continue to transform long after we’ve left the theater.

I won't reveal the specifics of the finale, other than to say that, not surprisingly, much of it involves the efforts to stage Chubbuck's final moments. But the scene starts and stops, and doubles back on itself, until we’re not sure what we’re watching: Kate being herself, Kate playing Kate (there is a difference), Kate playing Christine, or Kate playing Kate playing Christine. This in turn also enhances the suspense of the scene, because we begin to wonder if we will ever see the suicide, what it will look like, and — most important — whether we should. Suddenly, a movie that was about an actress’s transformation becomes a movie about our transformation, as audience members. The film interrogates its very existence, and thus becomes something greater and more all-encompassing than a mere fiction or documentary ever could.

As one might imagine, seeing Christine after Kate Plays Christine is a fascinating, anxiety-inducing experience. Campos’s narrative follows Chubbuck during the months prior to her suicide, and at times feels like it could cross over into a more serious variation on Broadcast News. This is a bit of a shock, in part because the other film began with mention of Chubbuck’s suicide, and was so constantly informed by her depression and tragedy — she remained such a melancholy figure throughout — that we rarely saw her in ordinary circumstances, as a sensitive and ambitious career woman trying to do serious, small-scale journalism at a time when the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos was taking hold in newsrooms across America. Campos nails the hubbub of a broadcast studio, as well as the constant anxiety of workers trying to navigate a turbulent industry — not to mention the way that personal and professional relationships become intermingled when placed under such high pressure.

In its own way, Christine is as much about filmmaking as Kate Plays Christine was. At one point, desperate to find the more “juicy” stories demanded by her ratings-hungry boss (played by the great Tracy Letts), Christine gets a police scanner, finds out about a fire in progress, and drives out to report on it with a cameraperson. Uninterested in the spectacular sight of the burned-out van, she focuses on the older man who accidentally set the fire, and who describes what happened in close-up. The result looks like it might make a fascinating movie, but it isn’t nearly sensationalistic enough for the TV station. One wonders if Campos, whose previous films Afterschool and Simon Killer were a lot more internalized and stylized (read: “artier”) than Christine, might feel a certain kinship with this character.

Still, it’s not like Christine isn’t focused. As Chubbuck, Rebecca Hall gives a lovely, layered performance. When we first see her, she's tough, maybe even a little standoffish. As the story proceeds and her world starts to go off-kilter, she becomes first more brittle, then more wounded. It's hard to watch, in part because we know where it's all headed. But it’s a testament to Hall’s performance that, even after Kate Plays Christine gave us so many angles on Chubbuck, in Christine the character stands on her own as a full-blooded creation.

Nevertheless, Greene and Sheil have planted a seed in our minds, and we can’t help but wonder whether telling this story is even worth it — and whether Chubbuck's ultimate act, the very reason why we know her name and are likely watching these films, is something we should even want to see. Movies that question our supposed bloodlust and our fondness for spectacle are a dime a dozen, of course, but the story of Christine Chubbuck is different. Her on-air suicide forces us to take notice of a life that, otherwise, might have seemed inconsequential. “I want to pay respect to Christine Chubbuck and also empathize with her,” Kate Lyn Sheil says in Kate Plays Christine, “but make it clear there isn’t anything sexy about someone taking her own life.” There is perhaps something grisly, maybe even a little dangerous, about both of these works appearing at the same time and reviving interest in this horrific event. But the life that both Christine films reveal is an ordinary and very human one of ambition, sadness, disappointment, of a simultaneous yearning and fear of connection. These movies don’t take away Christine Chubbuck’s humanity; they help restore it.