“Kate Plays Christine” and the Importance of Watching

Christine Chubbuck was a reporter for the local news station, WXLT-TV, located in Sarasota, Florida. On July 15, 1974, she committed suicide during a live television broadcast, proclaiming before her death, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts,’ and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.”

Robert Greene’s latest documentary, “Kate Plays Christine,” is a personal investigation into Chubbuck’s death. This investigation is mainly carried about by attempting to understand who Chubbuck was. To that extent, Greene’s lead actress, Kate Lyn Sheil, begins to take on the role of Chubbuck in preparation for a re-enactment of her suicide. This gives “Kate Plays Christine” a fictional aspect, yet I don’t see this fictional aspect of the film as a hindrance to the film’s realism. Rather, the fictional aspect of “Kate Plays Christine” allows Greene to open a new series of questions.

By having Sheil take on the persona of Chubbuck—she begins to wear a wig and clothing similar to Chubbuck’s, recreates Chubbuck’s room, buys a gun from the same store Chubbuck bought hers, and so on—“Kate Plays Christine” becomes an investigation in way that is only achievable through cinema, and that is, acting. That acting comes with a set of consequences and this is how Greene begins to ask the bigger questions of the film himself, while also knowingly causing the audience to ask certain questions themselves. Is the danger of Sheil’s mental health resulting from her method acting worth the results of their search of understanding? Chubbuck’s suicide resulted from her depression, but she used her suicide to deliver a message of contempt for America’s want of violence; why are we so fascinated by violence, be it fictional such as in films or real as in the news?

Part of the investigation is done by interviewing the locals of Sarasota—the gun merchant, the wig maker, and news correspondents are just some of the people included in the film—and that in itself raises further questions. Why was/is buying a gun so easy? Chubbuck was not in the right state of mind yet had easy access to fire-arms. Could more strict gun laws have prevented her from committing suicide the way she did; so shockingly and loaded with a message that could only work the way it did?

Barring the news correspondents who worked with Chubbuck, and the town’s expert historian, the people interviewed don’t know who Chubbuck was. Chubbuck’s death was supposed to carry a message with it but with her death becoming somewhat unknown, her message is lost. By examining the last moments of Chubbuck’s life and just what her suicide meant, “Kate Plays Christine” also asks what it means to be alive. At one point in the film, an interviewee states that a person dies twice: the first time is when they physically die, and the second is the last time someone mentions their name. Sheil states herself, she believes someone is alive if they’re remembered and so Sheil’s taking on of the role of Chubbuck can then be seen as her own attempt in keeping Chubbuck and by extension, Chubbuck’s message, alive.

In preparing for her role as Chubbuck, Sheil’s acting reminds me of Jacque Rivette’s 1991 “La Belle Noiseuse.”  In that film, Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), a reclusive painter, pushes his model Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart) to her limits, both physically and emotionally. Frenhofer contorts Marianne’s body causing her pain, forces her to model the entire day, and closes her off from his own thoughts, making her feel demeaned. As he argues, it’s all for the sake of art. He wants to capture that “something” that makes art so magnificent through their grueling process of modeling, painting, and drawing. Marianne is eventually drawn in to his idea and later on, it is her that pushes him to his own limits as a painter.

Like Marianne, Sheil also pushes herself to her own emotional limits in order to discover who Chubbuck was and what was going through her mind. It would be commendable enough to praise Sheil’s acting for her devotion, but “Kate Plays Christine” blurs the line between acting and reality. Sheil really invests herself into Chubbuck as a person; she becomes protective of Chubbuck who in her final days felt an extreme sense of loneliness and fragility. By becoming Chubbuck, Sheil is able to keep Chubbuck alive but it comes at the cost of ultimately having to re-enact Chubbuck’s suicide—an act that Sheil finds difficulty in doing. To re-enact Chubbuck’s suicide in the search for understanding would be to do exactly what Chubbuck was against: watching violence for a sense of pleasure. Sheil understands this, and in the film’s final moments, she points the gun at the crew and defiantly shouts: “Tell me why you want to watch this?” It’s a very powerful moment that I think captures the complexities of the film.

Going back to the comparison of “La Belle Noiseuse,” that back and forth between Marianne and Edouard doesn’t exist in “Kate Plays Christine” and perhaps for the better. Greene comes off as respectful towards Sheil by way of his camerawork. Two scenes come to mind. The first is a swimming scene where Sheil is wearing a bathing suit. The second is one where Sheil is nude in order to receive a spray tan so that she may resemble Chubbuck. In both these scenes Greene’s camerawork doesn’t fall prey to Laura Mulvey’s famous thesis of the “male gaze.” Greene’s focus is on Sheil’s face or is positioned as such so as not to have the appearance and effect of a lingering stare. He understands how to transform his material from the script and onto the camerawork; Sheil’s mental process and journey into becoming Chubbuck are as important as the subject of Chubbuck herself within the film, and so I see Greene’s focus on Sheil’s face—particularly her eyes—as an attempt to capture that mental process. As Sheil interviews people in Sarasota or performs activities in preparation for her role, Greene is there to capture the dramatic nuance of what she’s going through.

“Kate Plays Christine” is a haunting combination of fictional film and documentary. That blending is more than just a gimmick but allows Greene to broach into subjects that otherwise wouldn’t be available. Likewise, in bringing out the success of the film, Sheil gives a multifaceted performance that moves “Kate Plays Christine” from a film about exploring who Christine Chubbuck was into something more personal that ends up tying Sheil as a person into the subject matter. That intimacy present is key and is ultimately what makes the film such a harrowing confrontational experience.


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