“Blood and guts television”
I didn’t completely hate Kate Plays Christine. Let me say that first off. I actually commend its attempt to ask serious questions about a serious subject such as depression and the affect its disease can have on an actor seeking to portray it onscreen. Look at Heath Ledger and the numerous accounts stating that his headspace playing The Joker in The Dark Knight pushed him over the edge into self-medication. Sometimes you can go too far with your craft and unearth demons you may not have known were even there. So we as viewers can appreciate the emotional ebb and flow happening as Kate Lyn Sheil looks to play 1970s Sarasota, Florida-based newscaster Christine Chubbuck. She’s bringing to life a woman who killed herself on live TV.
Except that she’s not. Here’s where writer/director Robert Greene‘s film lost me and turned my anger at the artifice into pure rage. This isn’t real. Chubbuck’s tragic story is and the numerous people Sheil interviews for opinions, research, and remembrance are, but the film that’s supposedly being made isn’t. The first thing I did upon learning about this project was to see who was directing the film for which Greene was behind the scenes. It didn’t exist. Rebecca Hall was playing the lead role in Christine (which premiered at the same Sundance Film Festival as this one), but this wasn’t Christine. So Sheil was preparing for this movie alone—this “documentary”. And who knows? Maybe that’s fake too. For all I know her questions were entirely scripted.
It’s a ruse. Sheil screams during her reenactment of Chubbuck’s suicide that there’s no purpose to what’s being filmed and she’s correct. The “footage” looks soap opera-esque with bright lights and middling performances so you can’t blame her frustration at what’s come off appearing shoddy at best. She yells about everyone watching being sadists, that the only reason she should pull the trigger of the gun now pointing at us is because the reason we’ve come here is simply to see the “blood and guts”. There’s weight to this realization, but we already discovered it an hour earlier after listening to a long-time anchor describe Chubbuck’s death as meaningless. People are assholes: those craving to watch and those dismissing it as a worthless act to be forgotten.
That’s some interesting stuff if Greene chose to legitimately focus on it without the elaborately constructed house of cards he hopes lets the impact of his message hit harder. Why not actually make a documentary delving into Chubbuck’s psychology or follow around an actor falling into the deep, dark abyss of his/her own sanity? When the end credits roll, Sheil raises her head and laughs as crewmembers mop at the fake blood in her hair. She was acting. The climax of the film where Sheil the actor breaks under the pressure of Hollywood nonsense much like Chubbuck broke down under the media’s devolution was artifice. Suddenly I had to wonder if anything was real and then about whether I had wasted two hours of my life for nothing.
It wasn’t a total waste, though, because conversations with a woman who interned under Christine’s brother and two of Chubbuck’s co-workers (one who was in the studio and wrestles with guilt about a badly spooled tape) are absolutely worthwhile listens. Hearing actors Stephanie Coatney and Marty Stonerock speak about death and mortality is inspiring too because this subject means something personal to them. But because the rest is conducted under false pretenses, their honesty is exploited. This could have been a great documentary on the strength of its subject matter, but it’s a game instead. Maybe the point is to deliver the message Christine shared with a bullet so that it won’t be hidden from view, but if so Greene failed to successfully achieve that goal for me.
I felt manipulated. Or perhaps it’s better to say that I felt like Greene hoped to manipulate me—something much worse. Everything felt like play-acting not because Sheil still hadn’t “found the character”, but because that’s all it was. This hollow shell surrounds a profound event that should be honored with more than a few asides about the movie Network turning a depressed woman into a macho man or an eerie sense of protectiveness towards a role based on a real person. That should be the meat of the film, not color to hide the ruse from view. My skepticism started setting off alarms the first time we see Greene onscreen giving Sheil notes about the film-inside-the-film. I felt cheated because any sense of authenticity went out the window.
People seem to love this “documentary” and I wanted to love it too. I went so far as trying to read the press notes to get inside Greene’s mind and see the film through his intentions, but the more I read the angrier I got. I had to finally resign myself to the truth that he lost me early on and ultimately doubled-down on the reasons why before he was done. I understand that cameras render “reality” moot, but the way Kate Plays Christine unfolds had me believing a script was written and Sheil was performing it at Greene’s whim. I wasn’t therefore watching an actor become a character. I watched an actor playing a version of herself pretending to become a character. I see no value in that.
[1-3] Kate Lyn Sheil in Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.