DIR/WRI: Richard Wenk • PRO: Susan Bedusa, Douglas Tirola • DOP: Sean Price Williams • ED: Robert Greene • DES: John Dickson • MUS: Keegan DeWitt • CAST: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh
On the morning of July 15th 1974 in Sarasota, Florida, a news reporter named Christine Chubbuck went to work at a local television station to host her morning chat show, Suncoast Digest. Approximately eight minutes into the broadcast, after the film reel for a news story jammed and would not play, Chubbuck looked straight down the camera and proclaimed, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living colour, you are going to see another first-attempted suicide.” It was then the 29-year-old reporter produced a revolver and shot herself behind her right ear. The lights quickly faded to black and she died fourteen hours later in hospital.
Despite the sensational manner of Chubbuck’s death, today her name remains relatively unknown in mainstream circles and is often dismissed as an urban legend. But Christine Chubbuck was very much a real person. So what exactly drove this successful and attractive woman to kill herself live on air? That’s the question director Robert Greene and actress Kate Lyn Sheil try to answer.
Though marketed as a documentary, the film toes the line between fact and fiction with a balance that make the two interchangeable. We follow Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Chubbuck in an upcoming film. Trying to immerse herself in the character, Sheil finds herself frustrated at every turn. Very few people who knew Chubbuck seem willing to talk about her and those who do don’t necessarily have anything helpful to say. On top of this, practically no video footage remains of the ill-fated reporter – except, of course, the one and only video copy of that faithful day’s broadcast, currently in the possession of the television station owner’s widow. For the most part the film succeeds in treating its subject with a respectful sincerity, namely in Sheil’s dismantling of the sexist rhetoric which surrounded Chubbuck’s death at the time. The lack of discourse about mental illness and depression in 1970s America is also explored hand in hand with the nature of media content and audiences’ desire to see- as Chubbuck herself so bluntly put it- ‘blood and guts’.
This is a story about stories and how narratives are built around real-life events in an attempt to comprehend that which is unexplainable. We are inexplicably drawn to the strange and tragic in the hopes we can put a name on it and perhaps, in doing so, face our own fears. But as reality and performance begin to blur as the film progresses, things take a surprisingly hackneyed tone. Sheil states early on that she is concerned with her work potentially being perceived as exploiting a sad and lonely woman’s shocking death. And yet, it is to this level of cheapness that the film descends to in the final act. The climactic scene where Sheil re-enacts Chubbuck’s suicide, staged to the umpth degree, is clunky and uncomfortable, though undoubtedly not for the reasons director Greene intended. We are hit with a curt message about how exploitation of tragedy in attempt to sate the public’s desire for gore is wrong, but the film undermines this nugget of insight with its mere existence.
Ultimately raising more questions than it answers, Kate Plays Christine’s lack of self-awareness will leave viewers cold.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Kate Plays Christine is released 14th October 2016