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Sundance 2016: “Christine” & “Kate Plays Christine”

There are any number of reasons to bundle Antonio Campos’ “Christine” and Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” into one report from the Sundance Film Festival. Of course, it’s an obvious choice given their shared subject matter—the 1974 on-air suicide by Sarasota local news reporter Christine Chubbuck—but what I find most fascinating is the drastically different approaches taken by the two films to the same story. While one might presume that the film premiering in the U.S. Documentary Competition section of the program would be more intent on explaining the details and possible motives behind such a drastic action, it is actually the fictionalized retelling in the U.S. Narrative Competition that feels like it's seeking reasons for the unexplainable. One approach mesmerizes, leaving viewers with questions about the very function and purpose of storytelling; one approach disappoints, reaching for things that perhaps cinema cannot grasp despite the efforts of everyone involved.

Robert Greene (“Actress”) had been trying to unpack a way to tell Christine Chubbuck’s story for years, only finding a way into it when he chose an approach that wouldn’t exactly retell the grizzly details but almost run parallel to them. In “Kate Plays Christine,” Greene chronicles the making of a movie-within-the-movie about Christine Chubbuck. He focuses more on star Kate Lyn Sheil (“Sun Don’t Shine”) as she takes on the role and goes through the research process of playing someone who would not only take her life but do so on afternoon television, at a time when she knew children would be watching. Greene follows Christine around Sarasota, and opens up the conversation not just to what happened to Christine Chubbuck but why we tell stories like this in the first place, the intrinsic links between suicide and depression, and even gender roles. It does not go unnoted that this story about a depressed woman in Florida inspired “Network” and her “character” was changed to an older white man.

One of the interesting initial elements of “Kate Plays Christine” is how many people, even in the Sarasota area, have forgotten this story. You won’t find YouTube footage of Christine shooting herself. There’s even little footage of her earlier on-air appearances, leading Sheil to struggle at first even in how to physically capture the real person she’s portraying. A Sarasota historian memorably says, “You die when you pass away and you die the second time the last time someone mentions your name.” In that sense, perhaps it is reason enough to tell Christine Chubbuck’s story just because it’s not time for her to die a second time yet. Why did most of us forget this story? Is it because suicide and depression are topics that scare people? Green and Sheil come to the reasonable conclusion that Chubbuck wanted to start a conversation about depression, and so they seek to do the same in telling her story. Consequently, they get at something about depression that few films have—its unexplainable hold. Did Christine want children? Did she hate the blood and guts cycle of the news that she railed against? Was she sick? None of these are the answer. And yet all of them are too.

Of course, that makes a job tough for an actress, and Sheil is captivatingly honest about her own issues with depression and gender role expectations of success and love by a certain age. Greene blurs the line between the actress and who she plays, and the film is gorgeously shot by Sean Price Williams, who lensed “Heaven Knows What” and “Queen of Earth.” I suspect that the ending will be a bit controversial, but how else could this story end? Christine Chubbuck wanted to get people talking, and so Robert Greene has made a film that does exactly that.

Antonio Campos’ film about Christine wants to do too much of the talking for her. Rebecca Hall steps into the role of the title character in a full-blown period piece co-starring Michael C. Hall as a fellow anchor. In a surprisingly straightforward fashion, “Christine” seeks to tell the story of the last few months of Chubbuck’s life. She’s repeatedly frustrated by her news station’s move to an “If It Bleeds, It Leads” aesthetic. She’s lonely, worried that both her advancing age and health problems mean that the window is closing on her chances to be a mother. She has few friends, and is undeniably awkward socially. Hall plays Chubbuck with an amplified degree of anxiety through her wide eyes and stilted cadence. Hall’s Chubbuck is a woman who always seems uncomfortable in her own skin. She’s a good actress but many of her choices here feel too broad, ways to show us how different Christine Chubbuck was from everyone around her.

The biggest problem with “Christine” is how much of it feels like it’s trying to “explain” who Christine was and what pushed her to shoot herself, but it doesn’t help that the film is disappointingly flat when it comes to style. Campos has shown flashes of brilliance when it comes to imagery, but he directs “Christine” straightforwardly, progressing from event to event in Chubbuck’s life without building enough tension to the inevitable conclusion. A lyrical or indirect approach might have worked, but a mere retelling of events with an emphasis on the moments that might have led to a suicide rings false. One scene in particular in which Chubbuck answers a series of questions that essentially recount the problems in her life feels too much like definitive answers by a screenwriter and not something organic. In the end, Christine Chubbuck believed in human interest stories over sensational ones, and so there was likely an understandable aversion to sensationalizing her story, but Campos and his team never found another angle to take. As Greene’s film convincingly portrays, maybe there isn’t one. 

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