“Nobody sees anyone as she is, let alone an actress playing a troubled young woman 40 years after her death. They see a whole – they see all sorts of things – they see themselves.” This is a flagrant bastardisation of a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, but it perfectly encapsulates the needling interrogation that is central to Robert Greene’s conflicted and engrossing docudrama, Kate Plays Christine. Its very definition as a documentary is cause for scrutiny, playing perfectly into the hands of a director intent on a dialogue about the veracity of nonfiction filmmaking and the porous boundaries between distinguishable mediums.
Greene seeks a deeper truth amidst the fragments of arch drama and investigatory reportage; artifice and reality bleed into one another with ease, the transitions smoothed by Sean Price Williams’ photography. Far from a wayward blurring of lines, it’s a meticulously orchestrated discourse on the representation of anything approaching fact. The ‘realities’ of the piece are two-fold. First there’s the tragic story of Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old news anchor in Florida who one day in 1974 took out a gun and committed suicide on air. This narrative is viewed through the prism of actress Kate Lyn Sheil and her ‘process’ of preparing to play Chubbuck – albeit in a project that only exists within the construct of Greene’s own film.
This is precisely the nebulous territory that will infuriate some viewers and as the film progresses, the vérité moments in which Sheil researches or discusses her findings become increasingly ambiguous. There is a late sequence in which she meets Christine’s former colleague to view actual footage of her ‘character’ for the first time. Visibly shaken by the experience, having spent weeks compiling her own breathing portrait, she articulates this shock by describing seeing Christine “in living colour” – a direct quote from Christine’s final speech before pulling the trigger. It’s a definite plant and clear hint that Sheil’s own arc is being crafted by her director, but that arc seems to be an uncanny channelling of her muse that simultaneously sees her find Christine frustratingly more difficult to decipher.
Her study – which ranges from interviews with locals to improvised workshopping of the melodramatic non-film – is not only intended to burrow beneath the news desk bullet points of Chubbuck’s public suicide. It’s aiming to illustrate the hopeless futility of trying to understand and convey the ‘real Christine’ and the inherent danger of staking a claim to such authenticity in reconstructed documentary cinema. It also raises disquieting questions about the voyeurism of viewers. Christine’s final denouncements to camera were of a “blood and guts” obsessed media and audience and Greene transfers a stomach-churning guilt to the unavoidable anticipation surrounding the recreation of the mortifying final scene. Greene isn’t looking to answer these questions as much as emblazon them in your mind.
Uncertainty is present throughout in regards to whether Sheil can bring herself to perform the final act and challenges you to consider the value of seeing it (the actual footage is held in a locked vault). The prevalence of gruesome sensationalism in the media was Christine’s final grievance before she took her own life, and on several occasions Greene highlights that her story only retains its allure for the bloody finale. “You die when you pass away and you die a second time the last time somebody mentions your name,” says one interviewee. Yet another contradiction at the heart of the fascinating and stimulating Kate Plays Christine: it speaks her name whilst wishing she’d been left to rest.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson