Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter in Sarasota, Florida, killed herself in an apparent suicide on live television in 1974.
Because it took place way before the internet age, and the only existing original videotape of the actual incident is thought to be lost, Christine and her provocative action had largely been forgotten. Robert Greene, whose film Actress made a splash at Art of the Real 2014 -- a film series that showcases boundary pushing non-fiction films -- takes an interesting approach to the subject. Kate Plays Christine plays out like an investigation, intimately documenting an indie ingenue, Kate Lyn Sheil, as she prepares for playing the role of Christine in Greene's fictional production about her.
Even though Christine's act can be interpreted as a protest against the sensationalism on TV, as her station was all about "Blood, guts and in living color," without the fateful videotape in circulation, there isn't really much information available on her to make sense of why she committed suicide for Sheil to really bite into the role.
Christine was good looking and good at her job, but socially awkward and didn't have any friends. She was apparently a lonely, depressed person who might have been a virgin when she died at 29. But these bits of information are completely dependent on whom you are speaking with, as they are vastly different. So Sheil is left with a Rashomon-style tale of a complicated woman no one really knew.
Even in casting Sheil to play Chubbuck, Greene took an interesting approach. The two women are physically very different: Christine was a dark haired, dark eyed Joan Baez-like beauty, whereas Kate is a soft featured, pixie girl type. It wouldn't surprise me if Sheil gets to play photographer Cindy Sherman in her biopic. We get an all access pass to Kate physically transforming herself for the role, getting a tan on a tanning bed, trying on a raven haired wig and putting on brown-eye contact lenses to get into character. Kate still doesn't resemble Christine, though. Kate's left with a fake tan and badly fitting raven hair.
Greene documents Kate doing her research for the role down in Sarasota. She talks to a local historian, former TV station workers, a local gunshop owner and actors who are portraying parts in the fictional movie. But she is having trouble relating to her subject and what her motives were. With an information that Christine was a good swimmer, Kate tries to swim with the wig on to get closer to her subject. But the wig keeps falling off in the water, ominously floating in the green ocean water off the coast of Florida.
Things doesn't get better for Kate even after finally seeing Christine in one of her interview clips. The pressure of representing the mysterious dead woman accurately becomes too much for Kate. Full of doubts and frustration, Kate starts to resent Greene and the whole project. As the crew prepares for the final moments of Christine's life, with the blood squib and blood pump on the side of Kate's head, and sitting at the news desk, Kate muses if this sick curiosity, the voyeuristic sadism, is what audiences are after.
Much as Greene did in Actress with Brandy Burre as he documented the trials and tribulations of her real life acted out by the actress, in Kate Plays Christine, Greene also takes an ambitious, meta approach to the subject. Sheil is faced with a difficult task here, to play the role of herself as an actress investigating a role. With the apparently shabby, low-budget fictional movie Greene is making, Sheil intentionally pulls an affected acting job as Chubbuck in a movie-within-a-movie, I'm-frustrated-as-hell context. And it's a fascinating watch.
For me, as far as American indies go, Greene stands out as the most daring, formalistically invigorating director working today. It's not really recreation of the event that Greene and Sheil are after. It's not even a character study. They are after the process of an actress trying to connect with her subject. It's also about the nature of performances and giving another layer of complexities in portraying real life characters.
This would make a fascinating companion piece to Antonio Campos' upcoming Christine, a more straight forward, narrative take on Chubbuck's life, starring Rebecca Hall in the title role, which coincidentally premiered with Kate Plays Christine at Sundance this year.
Kate Plays Christine opens theatrically on Wednesday, August 24 in select U.S. cities.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com