'Kate Plays Christine' is more than a clever twist on portraying a life
A new hybrid doc follows Kate Lyn Sheil as she wrestles with playing Christine Chubbuck, a woman known primarily for on-the-air suicide.
‘Kate Plays Christine’
Director: Robert Greene
Star: Kate Lyn Sheil
5 (out of 5) Globes
It sounds like a parlor trick: Make a film about Christine Chubbuck without actually making one. Going meta is often seen as cool. Movies about their own making, filmmakers making films about themselves — it’s the kind of thing that jazzes up adventurous moviegoers, earns Oscars, sometimes even sells tickets. But there’s nothing jazzy about the story of Christine Chubbuck. Hers is a grim and sad tale that ends — and, for most who stumble upon her story while skulking the Internet, begins — with her committing suicide on live TV. It’s one of the only things most people know about her. Many, surely, don’t even know that.
To make any film about Chubbuck is to court ghoulishness. “Kate Plays Christine,” a new hybrid doc, if you can call it that, from Robert Greene — of the similarly slippery and brainy “Actress” — understands this so deeply it can barely exist. It’s a movie at war with itself, and rightly so, because any attempt it makes to reimagine Chubbuck’s life is, on some level, ethically wrong. Fill in the countless gaps and you misrepresent her; show what we know (her live suicide) and you’re delivering “blood and guts — three words Chubbuck uttered before pulling the trigger.
Greene’s solution is, well, to go meta. But not cool meta, even if it certainly sounds cool. His film follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares for her a movie about Chubbuck that will never exist except as intentionally clumsy scenes inserted into the film. But she’s not really preparing for the role. Except that she is, because the entire movie follows her as she does research, visits Sarasota, gets wigs, a spray tan and contacts to turn her eyes from blue to brown. She talks to those who knew her to get something, anything. All the while she’s weighed down by playing not only someone who suffered depression but someone who was real. She dreads the film’s end, which to call potentially tasteless isn’t even getting there.
Clever! Except that “Kate Plays Christine” isn’t a self-satisfied cinematic equation, meant to exonerate filmmakers and Sheil for being hyper-aware. And it is aware of itself, and aware of being aware of itself, and aware of being aware of being aware of itself, and so on, ad infinitum. That, too, doesn’t describe the many things the movie is doing. It manages to be clever but not hermetic, sincere in wanting to be in the right but not cloying or smug. In fact, it’s never happy with what it does. In lesser hands the most interesting question would be what’s real and what’s not. In “Kate Plays Christine,” those are the least interesting questions.
What is interesting is the way it makes us aware of what we’re watching, makes us cognizant of what Greene chose to include. He wants us to be critical and open to the honest, complicated and often contradictory ideas to which we’re exposed. Greene includes chats with the actors in the movie-within-the-movie about Chubbuck. One of them says, sincerely and with great emotion, “It goes against our grain to want to snuff out our life.” That may seem oblivious, even offensive. But the movie doesn’t judge her. Nor does it judge a wigmaker who — in a scene where we learn a lot about wigs — looks at Chubbuck’s photo and says, “It’s heartbreaking to look at her.”
Maybe she’s leaping to a conclusion. Maybe you could point out that she’s not wrong. Without ever saying it, “Kate Plays Christine” tacitly understands that its human nature to want to make sense of the world in a way that reduces it. It wants us to come away thinking that a Christine Chubbuck movie should not exist, and perhaps that no films about real people — documentaries, docudramas, biopics — should either. At the same time, it’s no mistake that it includes someone rattling off that old chestnut that we die twice: when we physically pass on, then the last time someone utters our name. What better way to print the legend than with a movie? At heart “Kate Plays Christine” is and isn’t a film about Christine Chubbuck. Ultimately it just wants us to never stop questioning, especially when we think we’ve got our answer.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge