Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil
Director: Robert Greene
Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Robert Greene's complex, thematically dense, and aesthetically bold dissection of the contradictions of representation and performance is a movie literally about paradoxes. In Kate Plays Christine, actor Kate Lyn Sheil travels to Sarasota, Florida in an attempt to understand, empathize with, and hopefully channel the essence of Christine Chubbuck, a local TV reporter who killed herself live on air in 1974. Of course, Sheil is not technically researching the role in any traditional sense, nor is the movie version of Chubbuck's story (glimpsed here as a glossy soap opera), an actual production. Rather, the film is on the one hand about the artifice of acting--how self-expression and delusion are a slippery slope--and on the other, about the relationship between fact and fiction, and how taking "artistic license" can mean devolving into cheap exploitation.
Kate Plays Christine is fascinating on many levels, chief among them is the notion that Greene, and to a larger extent Sheil, are wary of depicting the famous suicide since any constructed version of Chubbuck's story, no matter how artful, is a form of sensationalism. This dichotomy is even brought up at one point by one of Christine's former colleagues, who remarks that no one would even be interested in making this movie without the suicide angle. In other words, Christine Chubbuck wasn't an extraordinary person. She was just another reporter in a small town no one cared about.
As Sheil begins gathering transcripts of the incident, and interviewing subjects (some of whom actually knew Chubbuck), we sense her growing unease with the act of representation. She understands that eventually she'll need to get to a certain place psychologically and emotionally where Christine's death will have context, and the narrative thrust of Greene's film rests on keeping us in suspense on just how this will be handled. In other words, as an audience, we have been drawn in by the very thing the film is warning us against, creating a self-reflexive level of irony which becomes even more escalated as things proceed. Sheil's remarkable performance here is one of those feats which could be labeled "critic proof", since she's portraying several versions of herself and at times, veering into purposefully stilted and theatrical territory. The key here is that Sheil never lets us completely in on the process, masking the multi-faceted nature of her performance under the guise of preparing for a role about a movie that doesn't exist. At times, Greene's camera seems to capture her mid-transformation; with the timid, frustrated "actor" colliding into the heightened movie version persona of Christine before descending into all-out theatricality by the final scene, which verges on self-examining farce.
It would be easy to label Kate Plays Christine bombastic, unconvincing, and preachy, especially in terms of where Sheil and Greene leave us. However, the film's power lies in its mirage-like deconstruction of the paradoxical nature of performance. Wonderful scenes abound; a meeting between Sheil and an elderly wig maker strikes notes of both wry humor as well as melancholy heartbreak, and a conversation with a gun shopkeeper turns in on itself as the "real" Kate becomes the "in character" Kate, dramatizing how she would portray the suicide. There's also a lovely moment where Sheil, a self-professed bad swimmer, jumps out into the ocean after learning of Christine's love of the water, only to repeatedly lose her wig. In a comically meta moment, you can hear Greene off-camera telling Sheil to leave the mound of hair behind so he can slowly zoom in as it sinks dramatically. Everything, even supposed mistakes, are artificially constructed. We only assume, while watching documentaries, that there's a level of transparency going on, but filmmaking is by design, an artistic con job.
Kate Plays Christine hammers home the point that we are drawn to the darkness because there's something disturbingly satisfying about watching a car crash unfold. Dramatizing the life and tragic death of Christine Chubbuck in any form falls into exploitation, since the entire enterprise hinges on the titillation of a grisly, unfathomable end. Greene's interest in the material lies not in providing context through non-fiction filmmaking, but rather, a Herzogian "escatic truth" about human nature. Can we understand why a single-minded, strong-willed woman ended her own life? Can an actor slip into the headspace and arrive at a place where something so unknowable can be articulated honestly through performance? Kate Plays Christine wrestles with these questions and even arrives at new ones, but the multi-faceted way it examines them means it's a supremely humanist film.
That the movie itself eventually becomes an exploitative stunt is one of the more powerful examples of Christine Chubbuck's own fears about local news turning into "blood and guts" journalism. Greene is only wagging his finger at us because we've bought into the lie that his film was going to answer some of these questions before giving us a ghastly scene of violence. Maybe Christine Chubbuck would have wanted it this way. No answers. No closure. No pay off.