Review: Kate Plays Christine (Greene, 2016) – Sundance 2016


At the festival this year were two films about the news reporter Christine Chubbuck who committed suicide on national television in 1974: a narrative starring Rebecca Hall that was impossible to get into and a documentary featuring Kate Lyn Sheil, an actress who looks familiar but whom I found impossible to place (Rachel Posner’s lover in House of Cards).

The filmmakers follow Kate as she prepares for her role as Christine in an upcoming 70s soap opera. Sheil travels to Florida, rents an apartment, and tries to immerse herself in the life of her subject, visiting the gun shop where Chubbuck purchased her weapon, speaking to people who knew her, interviewing a therapist to understand the mindset of someone who would kill herself.

Most people in Sarasota have forgotten or never knew about Christine, and many who remember have unkind recollections and characterizations. One senses sexism at play, though no one names it that explicitly. In the process of researching her subject, Sheil begins to grow protective of Chubbuck. She just wanted to be seen is a refrain that Kate repeats often. The irony that, forty years later, hardly a trace of her remains–including the infamous tape that contains the suicide footage–cannot be ignored.

It’s an awkward experience watching an actress at work, peeking behind the curtain at the forbidden: the cuts that don’t make it, the frustrations on set, the investigation circling around what is inevitably an enigma. Sheil seems brave, revealing her insecurities and fears, her professional vulnerabilities. Sometimes we wince with her, but we’re with her. That’s important, as you’ll understand if you watch the Q&A.

As becomes increasingly evident as the film progresses, Kate Plays Christine is no conventional documentary. Even with as little knowledge of the filmmaking process as I have, I could sense that something was off. There seems to be no director of the soap Kate is supposed to headline–or, at least, s/he is never seen on camera. In certain takes, Sheil seems to be addressing someone off camera, but the response is never shown. While the documentarians interview other key cast for their views on the story they’re portraying, we never even hear the voice of the person supposedly driving the project. Strange.

Director Robert Greene‘s film lies in the tradition of Exit Through the Gift Shop; it is a genre-bender that blurs fact and fiction to get at a more substantial truth. In both execution and effect, Greene is not entirely successful (certainly not as successful as his predecessor), but I don’t really care. I appreciate the creativity of his intent, his courage in attempting something new. If he makes a few editorial choices that seem, in hindsight, dubious, chalk it up to the price of innovation.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe the film has to be watched in conjunction with the Q&A (see below). The obscurity of his vision is perhaps Greene’s biggest failure. We shouldn’t need annotations to fully appreciate his film, and, in fact, most people who watch it in the future (assuming it gets acquired) won’t bother to probe further with a YouTube search.

You, however, stumbled upon this review.