SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2016
By Don Simpson | February 2, 2016
Director: Robert Greene
In 1974, news reporter Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on air at a Sarasota television station. Over 40 years later, it is difficult to find anyone who remembers Chubbuck, rendering the act of killing herself on camera relatively pointless. (Sundance 2016 tried to rectify that by programming not one but two films about Chubbuck.) Chubbuck quite purposefully requested that her fateful on air appearance be recorded, but the footage was never released. In fact, tracking down any video footage of Chubbuck is more difficult than one would expect, considering how many times she appeared in front of television cameras.
Actor Kate Lyn Sheil travels to Sarasota to research an upcoming role in a bio-pic about Chubbuck. (No, not Antonio Campos’ Christine.) Documentary filmmaker Robert Greene follows Sheil as she tries to learn more about Chubbuck.
The lack of material to draw from is frustrating for Sheil. It seems as though everyone who knew Chubbuck can only describe her with vague descriptions and arbitrary [and sexist] terms, such as “hard” or “masculine.” With such an incomplete portrait of Chubbuck, Sheil is hopelessly trying to immerse herself into a character she knows very little about. Until she can find video footage of Chubbuck, Sheil can only work with a few known facts: she had black hair and bronzed skin; she was depressed; she bought the revolver that she used to kill herself; she was obsessed with suicide. Needless to say, Sheil’s attempts at playing Chubbuck are justifiably bad.
Functioning as a sequel of sorts to Actress, director Robert Greene delves into a heady psychological analysis of an actor’s preparation process. Greene places Sheil into a difficult situation — having to become a character she has very little information about — and keenly observes her actions and emotions. The topics of depression and suicide take front and center in Sheil’s preparation (since that is what she knows), and that has a profound affect on the actor’s own psyche.
Kate Plays Christine also highlights the inherent artificiality of documentary filmmaking. Perhaps Kate Plays Kate Playing Christine might have been a more appropriate title, since there is an apparent additional layer of performance with Sheil portraying herself as an actor attempting to embody a real life persona. Greene does this specifically to contemplate the staged nature of documentary filmmaking and the camera’s inability to capture unfiltered reality. The onscreen events attempt to represent reality, or in some cases reenact it, but there will always be a directorial hand at play and the subjects naturally become recorded representations of themselves.