Sarasota newswoman Christine Chubbuck, who infamously shot herself on camera in 1974, may be a tragic footnote in the history of regional television. But in 2016, her paragraph is growing larger.
In one of those weird confluences of cinematic synchronicity — like 2005’s pair of Truman Capote biofilms, or this year’s dueling French and Anglo-American takes on Florence Foster Jenkins — Chubbuck has received a double dose of screen tributes. Two movies about her life and legacy debuted at Sundance this year, and they take wildly divergent approaches.
In Kate Plays Christine, a clever and hoodwinking documentary released this summer, director Robert Greene follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she attempts to embody the troubled journalist for a star-crossed feature-film project that was never intended to be completed. Interspersed among Sheil’s character research and interviews with Chubbuck’s contemporaries are scenes from Greene’s deliberately aborted biopic, and they resemble a lavishly stylized Todd Haynes melodrama — not the most sensitive approach when dramatizing the very real decline of a mentally unbalanced person. Its awfulness was its point. As Greene reportedly told Sheil before filming, “I have this concept: ‘I’m gonna document you while you are trying to make a film that shouldn’t be made.’”
Lo and behold, a straightforward narrative feature about the last weeks of Chubbuck’s life has been made. Antonio Campos’ Christine, which extends its South Florida run this weekend, in many ways embodies the irresponsible entertainment vehicle that Kate Plays Christine is supposed to be a bulwark against. Theoretically, a director could defy Greene by producing a biopic as cerebral and fractured as Chubbuck herself appeared to be, but this isn’t it.
Period pageantry overtakes visual artistry, starting with the television studio’s chintzy color palette of Anchorman-style institutional browns and yellows and continuing on with the guffaw-inducing sideburns, the ultra-lo-fi image quality of the broadcasts, the stilted news reading and other touched-down dispatches from the analog era, presented with all the postmodern irony Campos can muster. Even before the first of the movie’s offensively bouncy musical cues — Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans compose as if for a middling television dramedy — infringes of the action, you can smell trouble.
That stink of exploitation — of a life, and a death, that deserved to be left well enough alone, thank you very much — lingers throughout Christine like the cancer found mid-film in Christine Chubbuck’s ovaries. Yet I concede the movie’s compulsive watchability. Christine is set during TV news’ transition into the lurid gutter of disaster journalism, and part of the title character’s (Rebecca Hall) depression is prompted by her boss’s (Tracy Letts) enforcement of bleeds-it-leads headline-grabbers instead of her preferred, soberer reports on zoning debates and local businesses. For better and, mostly, worse, Christine is cut from the same sensationalistic cloth that it inherently criticizes, allowing us to enjoy the character’s breakdown the way we gawk at roadside pile-ups. There is pleasure to be found in Christine, but that’s part of its problem.
Christine, the character, is indeed a mess. She’s a workaholic whose work is unappreciated, a sufferer of an unspecified mental illness that had tanked her previous position at a Boston station, a 29-year-old virgin who can barely sustain a conversation with her office crush, chief anchorman George Ryan (Michael C. Hall, just handsome and smooth enough to project an air of mid-market television confidence), who has wholly different designs on Christine. She lives unhappily with her divorced mother, who seems to be having a more successful love life than she. Her lone joy arrives in performing puppet theater for intellectually disabled children — which, for Campos, serve the facile purpose of revealing Christine’s subconscious thoughts and emotions through her sock avatars.
As this excruciating parade of embarrassments and indignities snowballs toward calamity, Rebecca Hall’s agonizing performance contains the nuances of madness that are otherwise missing. Because a paucity of video and biographical information exists about Christine Chubbuck — a fact revealed in Sheil’s largely fruitless ghost-chasing in Kate Plays Christine — Hall had to invent her character virtually out of whole cloth. She plays Christine as witty and unshakeable in her element, which is the thrill of live television, but tightly coiled and socially impenetrable out of the studio — a long-dormant volcano whose eruptions damage her career, her family and especially herself.
But is there a point to Christine beyond providing a platform for a harrowing, Oscar-worthy performance? And having excelled at such an achievement, does it need a point? The answers to these questions are no and yes. The climax of Kate Plays Christine, manipulative and teasing though it is, shows Sheil repeatedly attempting to give her character the fatal gunshot wound to the head that would presumably end Greene’s faux-narrative feature. Sheil says her lines but can’t seem to pull the trigger, on moral grounds, regularly breaking the fourth wall to exclaim, Why does an audience need to see this?
She has a point. And after dwelling in the torment of a maddeningly traditional Christine Chubbuck biopic, it remains unanswered.
CHRISTINE. Director: Antonio Campos; Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron; Distributor: The Orchard; Rating: R; now playing at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton and Coral Gables Art Cinema; extends to Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 25.