The Most Beautiful Fraud: Kate Plays Christine
One of those odd little quirks of timing that happens in the world of cinema took place this year when not one, but two films based on the life of Christine Chubbuck were filmed and released at almost exactly the same time. The first was Christine, a more or less straightforward narrative film based on the television newswoman’s final days; the second was the much knottier Kate Plays Christine, a semi-documentary whose entire premise is difficult to describe. This was the film I saw at the Siskel Center earlier this week, and it was an involving and sometimes compelling piece of work that, unfortunately, fell apart under the weight of its own conceit.
Christine Chubbuck is almost entirely forgotten today, as the events of the film make clear. She was a young woman who hosted a daily digest-type news show on a local television station in Sarasota, Florida in the early 1970s; tormented by depression and an unhappy personal life, she gained her only measure of notoriety with the final act of her short existence. On a summer morning in 1974, during a live broadcast, she pulled out a revolver and, promising a television first, delivered by shooting herself in the head. The premise of Kate Plays Christine is that it is a documentary about Kate Lyn Sheil, an actress hired to play Chubbuck in an independent film, and the psychological and personal issues she faces while trying to research the role and do justice both to her part and to the person upon whom it is based.
One of the fascinating parts of the film is Sheil’s attempts to research Chubbuck’s life — visiting her home, speaking with people who knew her or worked with her, and, inevitably, to discover if any tape of the notorious on-air suicide actually exists. This is particularly interesting to me; through one of those strange distortions of memory, I would have sworn that I had actually seen this footage, although it becomes clear that almost no one has, and that it may not even exist. But that’s just one of the tricks that Kate Plays Christine relies on for its uniqueness, because it also turns out that it’s not really a documentary about Sheil’s explorations for a role she’s going to play in a narrative feature. It’s not really even a documentary at all. The entire thing is an elaborate construction; the film within the film is staged and was never intended to exist at all, and the documentary, such as it is, is actually a pretense, with the research Sheil does being completely real, but the project for which it is meant a fiction within a fiction.
It’s all very confusing, especially if you didn’t know what was going to happen ahead of time. Even up through the ending credits, it’s unclear what exactly you’ve just watched; I only received clarification because the director, Robert Greene (Fake It So Real and Actress), was in attendance and answered questions after the screening. Even then, it was perplexing: was the film scripted or improvised? Was it always intended to be a sort of meta-documentary? How did the actors who played the actors stage their scenes? I’m not sure I know, even now, even after hearing Greene speak, even after learning that this sort of blurring of the status between narrative and documentary is something of a speciality of his. And I’m not convinced that it actually matters, except insofar as it makes some of the odder choices in the film even more inexplicable.
Kate Plays Christine isn’t a bad movie at all, regardless of how much of its ‘reality’ is false. It’s even a good one for long stretches, and it has some very interesting things to say about the way actors immerse themselves in roles. Sheil, who comes across for most of the film as a bit of a blank slate, builds both our empathy and our trepidation as she learns more and more about Chubbuck’s life and comes to identify more and more with her loneliness and isolation. Thanks to her performance — and it becomes ever clearer as the film proceeds that it truly is a performance — as well as Greene’s eye and a clever if flawed concept — a mood of increasing tension, wonder and dread is built throughout nearly all of its two-hour run time.
Unfortunately, it completely falls apart in the bewildering final scene. All throughout Kate Plays Christine, we have been anticipating — and dreading — the moment when Sheil will finally re-enact Chubbuck’s final moments, and how she will handle being compelled to end the on-screen ‘life’ of the woman she has so come to empathize with. It’s hard to know how it should have been handled, but it certainly isn’t in the way Greene and Sheil choose: with a stagey, awkward, and, well, corny final speech that draws far too heavily on all the worst parts of Network (which we are assured, with a miserably heavy hand, was highly influenced by Chubbuck’s suicide). Apparently, Sheil improvised this scene herself, but that honesty doesn’t in any way excuse what a total disaster it makes out of everything that came before. It’s a disastrous misstep, overly melodramatic and ham-fisted, and it completely takes you out of the blurred unreality that Green has spent so much time crafting.
What’s particularly unfortunate about this mess of an ending (and about the flippant way in which it’s handled) is that films like Kate Plays Christine ought to be encouraged. Greene describes it as a film that’s all about his own failure to make a film that does the subject justice, and it’s certainly audacious, even daring, in both its conception, and, for the most part, its execution. It’s just too bad that its ending, like the ending of Christine Chubbuck, is ultimately troubling, unsatisfying, and certain to leave us with more questions than it does answers. Even if that was its intent, the final result is that not of a documentation of failure, but of a failure of execution.