Kate Plays ChristineBerlin Film Festival 2016
In 1974 news anchor and talk show host Christine Chubbuck put down her script, delivered a short speech on the growing sensationalism of TV news and then blew her brains out live on air. The story was big local news in Sarasota, Florida, was reported nationally and even formed the basis for the Oscar-nominated 1976 Sidney Lumet film Network. But, despite the show being taped, the whole thing was quickly forgotten. Described variously as tough, edgy, angry, resentful, given to tantrums and suffering from depression, Chubbuck’s suicide did not resonate. She became just another sensational news item and was then dropped.
Director Robert Greene has set himself quite a task in attempting to find out more about Christine and her suicide. The tape of the show was immediately put deep in the vaults of parent network ABC (Greene makes no attempt to unearth it) and never seen again. Christine’s depression was partly borne out of her inability to form personal or romantic attachments, which means there are no friends or family to talk to. Apart from her tragic final act, it’s like she never really existed. Cannily attempting to use these stumbling locks to his advantage, Greene enlists actress Kate Lyn Shiel to play Christine in a “cheap, stylised 70s soap opera” reenactment of her last days. In preparing for the role, Shiel slips into Chubbuck’s skin, visiting the ammo shop where she bought her gun, meeting with former colleagues, speaking with psychologists and even popping in a pair of coloured contact lenses.
The results are often illuminating, but the film occasionally feels padded, overly speculative and a little too in awe of the daunting demands of the actor’s craft. We spend an awful lot of time in gun ranges, wig fittings and tanning salons, and not so much with people – contemporaries, perhaps, or 70s scene-setting sociologists – who might offer some context for Chubbuck’s actions. Nixon was being impeached, the Vietnam War was raging and an oil crisis was crippling America, but this story takes place in a bubble. This immersive approach does pay dividends, however, as Shiel gets deeper into the role, going positively Single White Female at times. At this remove it might never be possible to ever truly know Christine Chubbuck, but with this daring, innovative documentary Greene and Shiel shine a light on the unforseen – and often cruelly ironic – ripples of history that we all make every day.
Adam Lee Davies
Kate Plays Christine does not have a UK release date yet.
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