Kate Plays Christine is a film without a subject. This is partially both the point and the hook: the film revolves around Sarasota, Florida news anchor Christine Chubbuck, who left almost no public record except urban lore of her on-air suicide on July 15, 1974, inspiring Network (1976). To cinematize this mix of limited material and interesting subject matter, Christine documents actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to portray Chubbuck for a fragmented film within a film. It’s a framework that could illuminate any number of things – about acting, identity, voyeurism, gender dynamics, cinema and who knows what else. Unfortunately, the documentary fails at most all of them. Kate Plays Christine is a movie in which the filmmakers set themselves up with a difficult task, can’t think of an interesting approach beyond their high-concept hook, half-ass the execution and blame the medium and its audience for their own failings. The result is a self-satisfied ode to its own solipsism.
It’s shitty as history. If one takes ‘Chubbock’ as the subject, it is notably constrained by its limited sources, mostly Chubbuck’s childhood journals and a few era news reports. It is apparent, however, that nobody involved did much background reading (Sheil’s prominent copy of Durkheim’s 1897 classic Suicide aside). The result is the first hour is mostly unfounded, unfocused speculation from Sheil and others about Chubbuck, the 70s newsroom, and suicide – despite how much has been written on the latter topics. Factual claims – that Chubbock was descendent from screen icons Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks – are voiced, but neither confirmed or refuted. Grasps at theoretical framings are half-hearted. Murmurs about sexism and Chubbuck’s probable difficulties with it underscore the masculinity of the media professionals she meets, but also underscore the extent that everyone is mostly creating projections about Christine. The latter seems to be the film’s primary point, which (again) might have broader applicability if the filmmakers weren’t conspuously trying to avoid empirical evidence.
It’s shitty as a portrait of craft. As an exploration of acting, it devotes a notable amount of time to superficial actions; ‘getting into character’ is mostly represented by purchasing a wig and buying contact lenses so Sheil might better resemble Chubbuck. She goes to the office building that was once an old TV studio, but doesn’t go inside. Beyond that, Sheil doesn’t say particularly insightful things – which, fair enough, not everyone can explain their own particular genuis. But if what Sheil says isn’t enlightening, neither is the process of watching Sheil say un-insightful things illuminating. The direction and editing doesn’t compensate.
If one takes the movie as examining the process of creation, it doesn’t show much in the way of how historians, directors or film editors continually reflect and revise throughout their work. This is underscored by the film’s best moment of drama: when Sheil meets with people who actually knew Chubbuck, one-time co-workers who challenge Sheil’s assumptions and the filmmakers’ motivations. By that point, however, one is left to wonder why the filmmakers didn’t seek such pertinent input earlier in the process. Whether academia or cinema, you edit your drafts until they’re good, and if you only have enough good footage for a 20-minute documentary than that’s what you make. The movie neither serves as a record of reflective choices made throughout its production, nor gives an indication it was paired down to reflect the best thinking resulting from those choices.
It’s shitty as cinema. Moments of heartfelt reflection on the challenges of acting are displayed – particularly one actress relating an unstable emotional moment to how she imagines Christine may have felt, and an actor’s speaking of the constant rejection that comes with the job. These, however, are in service of a project conspicuously ill-advised. Speculation on Chubbuck is mostly a parade of quasi-professionals venturing obvious, surface level interpretations of her actions. May have extraordinarily hesitant connections to Chubbuck (an employee at the gun store where Chubbuck bought the weapon) who seem reluctant to be interviewed. The ‘scenes’ of Sheil acting as Chubbuck, the ‘film within a film’, are furthermore extraordinarily stilted, shot almost entirely in over-exposed close-up and assembled from clichés and the most literal record. Watch, as Christine’s family tells her they’re worried about her! Watch, as she heroically confronts her editor about bumping her ‘important’ stories! Then, there are the scenes that deliberately blur the line between when we’re seeing ‘Kate’ and ‘Christine’, such as one in which she goes for a swim in her all-important wig, which naturally falls off. The camera lingers. The physical explanation runs: it’s difficult to swim in a wig. The symbolically-minded one goes: it’s because cinema is fake. The wig is the movie in a nutshell – an argument about the artificiality of cinema, as represented by an actress wearing a wig, as evidenced by the fact that the wig is not waterproof.
And then, after all that, the film ends with [spoiler-ish] an admittedly tense final monologue in which Sheil the actor-character looks straight at the camera to decry the ‘fucking sadists’ that are the film’s raison d’etre. To the extent that Sheil and Greene accuse the audience more than themselves, it’s a bold claim to make given how sloppy the whole production has been. And indeed – given scenes that are eminently readable as Sheil’s reluctance to ‘act’ for the camera – there’s certainly a case to be made that she, at least, mostly meant director Robert Greene & co.
But Christine’s biggest problem is that it’s just shitty at being shit. As critic Michael Atkinson suggested, I wouldn’t rule out that all this half-assery is a deliberate create choice, a statement about the laziness of documentaries and biopics. If so, I’m sympathetic to the impulse, but it’s dour, unoriginal, and self-satisfied execution reads like a film-school provocation that should be beneath seasoned professionals. ‘Art’ is short for ‘artifice’. Every documentary –-every film ever – is compromised. These ideas are not novel. They’re premises, not conclusions, and the interesting part comes in what the filmmakers do with them.
There are numerous interesting, innovative documentaries about frustrating subjects and failures. Director Joshua Oppenheimer said of The Look of Silence that he expected his direct subject (a man confronting his brother’s killers) would ‘fail’, but that he expected the way it failed to be interesting. Silence and its predecessor, The Act of Killing, brilliantly used its interviewees’ mix of reluctance and bravado at the murders they committed to illuminate how performances (everyday and cinematic) might and might not be ‘authentic’. Errol Morris’ films routinely interrogate the layers of storytelling at work between his agenda as a filmmaker and his interviewees’ – applied in The Unknown Known (2013) to a frustratingly unreflective Donald Rumsfeld. With regard to the specific subject of acting, Maximillian Schell turned Marlene Dietrich’s willful obscurity and idiosyncratic demands into abstract art in Marlene (1984). Documentaries about questionable movies are genre unto themselves: American Movie (1999), Lost in La Mancha (2002), Overnight (2003), Lost Soul (2014), Audience of One (2007)…
A core message of Kate Plays Christine is that looking at images tells us much less than we might hope. Yet as a statement about the limits of documentary, empathy, and cinema, it is notably constrained by its own ignorance. It takes its own questionable creative choices as evidence that cinema itself is questionable, coming off like the kid in class that calls everyone else is stupid because s/he didn’t do the assigned reading. As an audience, we do trust films to mediate some sort of experience, and they often fall short. Noting that a film is aware of its own artifice, however, isn’t the same as saying it engages with that artifice effectively. Christine, of all films, should know that. Unfortunately, you can’t accuse cinema of deficiency through a film that seems committed not to function.
*FYI: Over the years, I’ve used this blog as an irregular dumping ground for various written pieces that otherwise might not have a home. I still do film reviews over at The MacGuffin, but as the 2017 awards season is gearing up and I’m otherwise working on my PhD, I thought I might distract myself distract myself by writing some reviews of films that have already been critically picked-over. They won’t all be negative – and I’ll admit that the above could be the most negative thing I’ve ever written about a movie, I cringe reading it, and should anyone involved with the production happen across my humble blog I sincerely apologize. Somewhere, I believe, there could be an alternate edit of Kate Plays Christine that is much much better.