Just a few weeks ago, we were fortunate enough to get the brief release of director Antonio Campos film Christine, about Florida newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on the air in 1974 and served in no small part as an inspiration for the lead character in the film Network. Although not meant as a companion piece, the other film about Chubbuck, Kate Plays Christine, from documentary filmmaker Robert Greene (Fake It So Real, Actress) serves as a perfect part two of a double feature by taking a decidedly different approach to Chubbuck’s life and death that has almost more of an unfiltered emotional impact than Christine.
Working primarily as a walk though Chubbuck’s life through the eyes of indie film actress Kate Lyn Sheil (Silver Bullets, “House of Cards”), who is on location in Sarasota doing research about Chubbuck to prepare for the role of acting as her in this very film. Sheil’s goal is to attempt to build a real-life character to assist her in understanding the circumstances that lead Chubbuck to commit suicide. Director Greene builds up a certain momentum as he continuously returns to Sheil and the special effects team that are preparing for the on-air suicide scene, figuring out how to make her long wig puff out just right to show the bullet passing through her skull. It’s an eerie, morbid way to approach docudrama filmmaking, but this makes it no less fascinating.
Sheil does a remarkable job letting us into her process and frustration of building the Chubbuck character, wanting do her life justice and empathizing with the newswoman’s frustration with her network’s decision to push blood-and-guts TV rather than promote local stories that actually impact their viewership. The actress narrates each new discovery in her investigative journey, from people who knew and worked with Chubbuck, to buying a gun at the same store where she did. Sheil’s priority is to locate footage of Chubbuck, which she does in one of them most impactful sequences of the movie.
Although we see certain scenes being shot for Sheil’s film about Chubbuck, I don’t get the impression that a final film actually exists. The documentary seems to be the end goal here, and even portions of that are obscured with sequences that are obviously staged in an attempt to blur the lines between Chubbuck’s depression and Sheil’s own quandaries about the character and how deeply she feels for Chubbuck once she does. Each new reenactment becomes increasing more difficult for Sheil, and it all builds to a tense and tough day of shooting the suicide, which the actress clearly does not want to do.
There is absolutely something inherently more haunting and devastating about talking to people who actually knew and appreciated Christine Chubbuck than simply reproducing her final days. It seems like she was a good and sensitive soul, and the world just wasn’t on her side, either in her personal or professional life. The film makes a case for her social shortcomings being the result of never breaking free of her mother’s overbearing affections, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Sheil is a strong enough actor to sell us both on her version of Chubbuck, as well as the version of herself as an artist attempt to capture the impossible—the soul of another person. She never wants us to feel sorry for her as a performer, but it’s impossible not to when we look at how she takes on a character so completely. Kate Play Christine is as delicate as it is tough, and it’s a worthy glimpse into the hearts and minds of those who attempt to capture life from many different angles.
Kate Plays Christine opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Robert Greene will be present for audience discussions on Friday, Dec. 9 at 8:15pm, and Saturday, Dec. 10 at 5:30pm. The Saturday discussion will be moderated by acclaimed documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself). The film screens an additional time, on Monday, Dec. 12 at 7:45pm.