Overview: As actor Kate Lyn Sheil prepares to take on the role of Christine Chubbuck, a TV news journalist who committed suicide live on air, she finds herself grappling with challenging emotions and ethical quandaries. Grasshopper Film; 2016; Not Rated; 112 minutes.
Flip It, Reverse It: Kate Plays Christine isn’t what I would call a provocative film–not in the negative sense that implies pointless deliberacy, anyway–but it does open with something of a provocation to its audience, a challenge to your preconceptions and an attempt to frame your perspective of what follows. The title appears on-screen one word at a time, but in reverse, so that reads as Christine Plays Kate. It’s something of a cheat, in that it gives the audience a framework with which to make sense of the film right off the bat, rather than trusting you to come to your own understanding. Christine Chubbuck is long dead, but there is an extent to which she is the one playing Kate Lyn Sheil, and not the other way around.
What starts as a depiction of the actor’s process becomes something of a ghost story; Chubbuck’s spirit gradually comes to haunt and possess Sheil, or rather Sheil lets Chubbuck’s spirit in. After a while, she starts wearing the colored contacts procured for the role even when she’s not filming, a subtle detail with unsettling implications. The film is more about Chubbuck than Sheil, and by the end it becomes an apology for attempting to make a film about Chubbuck in the first place. In learning more and more about her life, and becoming consumed by some of her resentment at the way she was perceived and treated during (and after) her life, Sheil is forced to reckon with the ghoulishness of the whole affair. No matter how committed she is to honoring Chubbuck’s life, she can’t escape the suicide. It’s the reason Chubbuck’s story is a story to begin with.
Intention: Early on, Sheil talks a lot about feeling protective of Chubbuck. She reads accounts of her death written by men, who use condescending and inappropriate language to take ownership of Chubbuck’s narrative. Sheil wants to return that ownership to Chubbuck, but the deeper she immerses herself in Chubbuck’s life, the clearer it becomes that she can’t do that. Sheil and writer/director Robert Greene will always be behind the final product, with their own individual agendas, whether they like it or not. Kate Plays Christine becomes about whether Kate Plays Christine even has the right to exist. That sort of ruthless self-interrogation is appropriate for a film about a suicidally depressed woman.
The Machine: Kate Plays Christine is about more than just itself. It uses Sheil’s performance as a way to explore empathy, and the capacity of people to really understand each other. Sheil talks to source after source to get first- and second-hand impressions of Chubbuck. They all have their own opinions about why she killed herself, but those opinions are all rooted in their own subjective experiences. Some of them are disturbingly harsh, calling Chubbuck out for making a selfish and ultimately meaningless choice. Even the gentler voices, the people who knew Chubbuck best, are unable to truly comprehend her perspective. To Sheil, this is the essence of performance. Roger Ebert once famously called the cinema “a machine for generating empathy.” Kate Plays Christine succeeds in revealing the limits of this philosophy.
That’s not to criticize Sheil’s talent, of course. She’s an immensely skilled performer, and she does things in Kate Plays Christine that I’ve rarely seen other actors even attempt. Despite the title, Kate spends most of the film playing Kate. Acting as though you aren’t acting is a tremendous challenge for any performer. Sheil’s work here is hauntingly honest and grounded, and it gets richer as the lines between her and her character begin to blur. It’s unfortunate that her performance (and the film as a whole) is marred by the blunt and didactic final scene, which drops the mysterious pretense of reality which had made the film so intriguing up to that point, but it’s a relatively small stain on an otherwise magnificent work.
Overall: Kate Plays Christine is an astonishing and singular experience, posing fundamental questions about cinematic realism and exploitation.
Featured Image: Grasshopper Film