The opening minutes of Robert Greene’s latest feature, Kate Plays Christine, are probably its strongest; a neat summary of its layered formal patterning as well as its challenges as a reflection on historiography. Before we get an image, we hear the sound of the film’s lead, Kate Lyn Sheil, reading an excerpt from the late reporter Christine Chubbuck’s diary, written when she was a teenager. Chubbuck, we soon learn, was a Florida-based newsreader who committed suicide live on television in 1974 at the age of 29. This diary entry, in which she reveals a desire to become a “woman with a little spice”, constitutes one of the precious few material traces she left behind. Soon after, Greene couples this text heard in voiceover with an image of Sheil at a news desk, surrounded by film crew members while in half-done costume and makeup, preparing for a take recreating the final fateful moments of Chubbuck’s life. The colours of the shot are washed out, coated in the telltale black-and-white VHS fuzz that acts almost as an imposed layer of moss on an otherwise contemporary image. We then hear a layered collage of radio broadcasts from the period, reporting on the newsreader’s gruesome public suicide, which was presaged by a brief monologue about the “blood-and-guts” slant of broadcast news.1
What stands out about this brief opening sequence are two things that seem indicative of Greene’s broader approach to documentary form. First, the director moves liberally between representational modes across both image and sound, shifting between fictional recreation (Sheil playing Chubbuck), primary historical sources (a diary entry) and intermediary representation (a radio broadcast), in an attempt to resurrect Chubbuck as an historical subject. Second, and closely related, there is a constant interplay in the film between the material traces of a past event and a later effort to recreate this same event. Faced with a relative paucity of information and images of Chubbuck, Greene instead openly sifts through the grist of traditional documentary historiography (testimony, witness and trace) while also dramatising the process by which these historical co-ordinates are transformed into a contemporary representation. By making this path to depicting Chubbuck’s life and tragic death the very focus of the film, Greene and Sheil are forced to navigate both the ethical and philosophical dilemmas that surround their particular choice of subject. On the one hand, the issue of depicting a human phenomenon (suicide) that is so intensely personal—the motivations for which continue to be so obscured to the majority of people—constitutes a major source of tension and even anxiety in the film. On the other hand, the more self-reflexive concern over how to best give form to an historical event when there is a marked lack of material available to draw upon in the present day is no less of a thorny question.
Indeed it is this more philosophical issue around documentary historiography that seems to have been the initial impetus for Kate Plays Christine as a project. In an interview with 4:3 after the film’s screening at the Berlin International Film Festival, Greene and Sheil spoke quite eloquently about their interest in the project precisely along the lines of availability of images of Chubbuck. Greene points out that had Chubbuck’s suicide taken place later in the 1970s or early 1980s, footage of her would have almost certainly been much more easily accessible. The Chubbuck case is interesting then, in that what was clearly intended to be a very public and broadly distributed event is, by the nature of the particular configuration of technology at a certain point in history, only available to us through even more diluted intermediary representations. The moving image is thus replaced by older forms of bearing witness: among them, the photograph, the newspaper article and spoken testimony. We might think of the project as a shifting series of attempts to rearrange these scant scraps of evidence into a representation of a historical event, trying and swapping out cinematic modes without ever settling on any one of them as the best one for its subject.
For instance, much of the film’s first half plays out as a quasi-procedural drama, in which Sheil embodies a kind of detective figure on the hunt for information about Chubbuck’s life. Sheil makes a pilgrimage to Sarasota, Florida—Chubbuck’s hometown—consulting local historians, shop owners, frequenting the locales that Chubbuck had been known to frequent, all in the name of filling out the slim character portrait available to the film’s crew. She learns of a tape that may or may not exist containing footage of Chubbuck’s on-air suicide, yet chooses not to pursue it. Running parallel to this are Sheil’s preparations to play the character of Christine in a fictional film-within-a-film that is the ostensible driver of the film’s narrative arc. We see her trips to a solarium and sessions with a wig-maker and costume designer, with Greene making us privy to those moments that might otherwise have been left out of a film—whether fictional or documentary—or would have at least belonged to pre-production rather than the regime of the pro-filmic. When we do finally catch a glimpse of the fictional film-within-a-film that Sheil has been preparing for, we are struck by its gauche melodrama stylisation: period costume and low-key lighting hardly seem like an appropriate fit for Chubbuck’s story either.
While the film is generally relatively restrained in its meta-criticisms of documentary form, allowing them to emerge fairly organically from its careful arrangement of seemingly incongruous parts, at times Greene’s self-consciousness about the project becomes a little obvious and grating. If Greene seems to be knowingly caught between morbid curiosity and perhaps a more noble motivation of resurrecting a forgotten story, he has a tendency to somewhat inelegantly shift this ethical anxiety over on to Sheil’s character in the film. Sheil carries the film’s concerns about its own right to exist: we overhear her describing the project to her father over the phone in uncertain terms, and feel this same unease when she interviews local Sarasottans about their memories of Chubbuck.2 Perhaps the greatest offender in this regard is the final recreation scene, which feels like the film’s weakest link in that it simply explicitly reiterates the central ethical tensions of the film via Sheil’s tortured stop-start recreation of Chubbuck’s suicide. Rather than providing the film with a confronting ending that genuinely makes the audience reflect more deeply on their viewing position, it simply feels like a less delicate rehash of the problematics that have emerged organically over the course of the film.
These issues aside, Kate Plays Christine is still one of the most singular films that played at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, non-fictional or otherwise. Its reflections on documentary form may not always be as pointed or as nuanced as one might hope, but given the spate of near-identical by-the-numbers films that flood the non-fiction sections of contemporary festival programs, Greene’s ambition is admirable. Hopefully it is an indication of good things to come from this director in the future.
Around the Staff