Kate Plays Christine – Film Review by Lisa Jewell
Director: Robert Greene
Stars: Kate Lyn Sheil, Stephanie Coatney, Michael Ray Davis, Steve Zurk
The death of Florida-based newswoman Christine Chubbuck in 1974 has largely been forgotten in the annals of history. Her death – shooting herself in the head while live on air – along with her commentary that she was doing this “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts” made the daily newspapers but she quickly went out of the public conscience.
And so it’s surprising that after more than 40 years has elapsed, not just one but two films have been made on Chubbuck (both were shown at this year’s Sundance Festival). Christine, starring Rebecca Hall, is a straightforward biopic that traces the 29-year-old’s life in the run up to her suicide. The other film is Kate Plays Christine, a documentary that focuses on the preparations of actress Kate Lyn Sheil for her role as Christine in a low budget dramatic re-enactment of the story.
The documentary begins with a captivating moment – Sheil is dressed and ready for the scene where she plays Chubbuck shooting herself and she holds her fingers to her head in place of the revolver prop.
The idea to trace an actor’s preparations for a role is an interesting one for a documentary and Sheil’s determination to find out all she can about Chubbuck is a narrative device to reveal the often turbulent personal and professional life of the reporter. It’s also a way of exploring feelings generally about depression, suicide and what Chubbuck’s motivation was in taking her life on air (she was growing increasingly critical of the news station’s choice of ‘blood and guts’ subjects in an attempt to gain ratings). The documentary makes references to the 1976 film Network (which it’s claimed was inspired by Chubbuck’s story) and this also ties in with this point about the glamorisation of news.
Sheil talks to cast members of the film they’re making about their own feelings about suicide and depression and also talks to a psychiatrist about what might have been going on in Chubbuck’s mind. The fact that depression wasn’t taken seriously or talked about at the time is sad when you think of how desperate Chubbuck must have become.
But these interviews are all a little removed from who Chubbuck was as a rounded person until later in the film when Sheil finally finds people who knew her.
The buzz around this documentary in the last few months had got my interest – and the trailer made it look fascinating. I don’t know if it ultimately delivered on what I was expecting. Its main flaw may be its length – at 112 minutes, it felt about 30 minutes too long. It definitely has good points but the focus on the ‘process’ for the actor came across as a little affected and mawkish at times. The music used throughout was often heavy handed at sounding out what was happening and what we were supposed to be feeling.
About half way in, the film’s structure shifts a little as dramatic re-enactments come into play. These come across as a little campy but it starts to make sense only after the film ends and you see the path that you’ve been led along. I’m not sure if I always liked that path but I’ve got to give credit to the filmmakers for challenging conventions in this documentary.