It’s always strange when two film projects about the same subject made entirely separately from each other manage to arrive in theaters during the same season. Whether it’s Armageddon and Deep Impact, The Prestige and The Illusionist, or even Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, this quirk of cinema happens more often than one might expect. In addition to the costumed brother-against-brother pugilism of this spring’s comic book films, 2016 is poised to provide one of the more bizarre examples of the phenomenon. At Sundance this year, two films debuted based on the story of Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota, Florida newscaster who committed suicide live on air in 1974. She is getting the full biopic treatment from Rebecca Hall and director Antonio Campos with Christine, but perhaps even more intriguing is the purported documentary Kate Plays Christine, following an actress as she travels to Sarasota to research the role for an unnamed project.
The eponymous Kate is Kate Lyn Shiel, an up-and-coming actress who has proven popular among a particular subset of independent directors like Ty Sheridan, Adam Wingard and Alex Ross Perry. We are given little to go on; the film she is working on has no name and the director only exists offscreen. What matters, though, is the film’s central topic: Kate’s struggle to figure out how to play this very real, tragic person the world appears to have relegated to the status of a footnote to the inspiration for Network. One might think that the first televised suicide in American history would leave a more indelible mark on pop culture history, but Kate cannot find anything more than a still image of one of her broadcasts to forge her character. There isn’t even a record of Christine’s voice. Having to portray a real life person without the luxury of audio and visual documentation isn’t a new concept but it’s exceedingly more rare when the person was a television personality in the 1970’s.
Thus, much of Kate Plays Christine sets itself up as a document of the acting process, a vision of Kate’s journey to understand and internalize this ghost of Sarasota’s past despite the world’s best efforts to forget her. It’s a fascinating enough topic in its own right, as Kate tries to discover why Christine’s footprint is so faded while constructing a character with the aid of a wig and colored contact lenses. Watching her slowly transform herself through these trinkets is surprisingly engaging, but what elevates Kate Plays Christine beyond the standard talking head documentary fare is its mutability. The film is presented as a documentary, but its actual story is something altogether more complex. It finds kinship with the likes of Close-Up, Exit Through the Gift Shop or 20,000 Days on Earth, both in the way it melds reality and fiction (there is, after all, no biopic of Christine Chubbuck starring Kate Lyn Shiel), and in how it establishes a premise and uses it to smuggle in themes and topics that don’t present themselves until they are at their most potent, a carrier virus of sorts.
It is a notably unsettled experience for the audience, as director Robert Greene chooses to anchor the film on a sort of framing device, opening the film on Kate in wardrobe on the day she will shoot her climactic scene, and then constantly revisiting it as she builds her character. Her unsteady countenance, flanked by makeup artists and crew members affixing a squib to the side of her head above the wig line, first seems symptomatic of her inability to grasp the character, but each time the film returns to it, the implications change with further knowledge of Christine and how Kate interprets her life and untimely demise. The lack of physical evidence of Christine’s life may begin as a source of frustration for Kate on a purely professional level, but as she learns more, interviewing friends and coworkers, getting even a tangential sense of what might have driven Christine to her decision (with many of those moments eventually acted out in wonderfully campy excerpts from this nonexistent film), she learns that the exploitation of media and its desire to show the worst of society, offering the most broken aspects of the world to the altar of ratings (this of course being the aspect of the story that helped birth Network) hasn’t changed much from the 70’s to the modern day.
Greene’s shrewdest gambit in the framing of Kate Plays Christine plays into this exact societal expectation up public consumption of personal tragedy. It is impossible not to be curious about the bloody deed itself, the curiosity stoked as Kate’s journey to see it herself is rebuffed at every step, the evasive tape just out of her reach. It looms over the proceedings, a dark cloud obscuring the sun. The film climaxing with this moment, real or dramatized, is an inevitability, a capitulation to the very bloodlust Christine railed against in her final seconds. But just as Christine’s act, prefaced as an excoriation against “the latest in blood and guts, in living color,” was one woman’s statement against a television station gone wrong, Kate Plays Christine turns its camera against the society that wants, nay yearns for the video of a woman committing public suicide. How it plays out must be left for the experience of the film itself, but it is a powerful and uncompromising feat. As a docudrama, Kate Plays Christine is an engrossing window into the acting process. As social commentary, it is so much more.