History is full of thorns, trampled leaves, and blank passages where handwriting should be. It’s a flip book made of broken glass. Major events are polarizing, competitively important, and often times cause for analysis and discussion. But personal events, when developed in a darkroom and shown in front of an unsuspecting audience, can be altogether quieting. Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter for WXLT-TV in Sarasota, Florida, was a pensive, emotionally tenuous, complicated individual who, under duress, took her own life during a live broadcast in 1974. The tape has never been seen outside of those who witnessed the suicide, on air, during that particular July morning. But those who were present in the studio say that Christine calmly delivered the news, cavalierly shuffled papers, drew a revolver, and left the earth with a decided message: The insatiable entity that is media needed more blood, more guts.
To bore into the pages of this specific moment in time requires a level of dangerous, almost perverse, curiosity. When making a docu-drama of this magnitude, the emotional wellness of a person, who long ago left this mortal coil, is being wheeled out for strangers to prod and poke, assess, and, perhaps even unintentionally, manipulate. When filmmaker Robert Greene became fascinated with Chubbuck, the trepidation and fear became embroiled with incessant inquisitiveness: Who was Christine? Why did she perform this destructive act? To what lengths should we, as a society, stir up the macabre memory of someone’s unfortunate choice for the benefit of conversation?
Greene wasn’t the only person agog with Christine’s story. Actress Kate Lyn Sheil, whom Greene cast for the part of the late-journalist, also falls into the fog of war. In preparing for the role, Sheil stands, inertly, in gun stores. Posits existential questions about morality. Stares, deeply, into the abyss of her subject. Half-film and half-documentary, “Kate Plays Christine” is an eerie waltz of madness, regret, and reflection. Sheil, who is marvelous in most everything she is in, gives her entire self to a role that requires nothing less. As an actor, she realizes that an emotional detachment from Christine is impossible.
Greene’s film works because it raises questions about art, exploitation, and storytelling. Is it possible to divorce yourself from the collateral damage of the material? “Kate Plays Christine” is haunted by its own inability to recoil from the void. It’s somber in self-immolation and destructive in its eulogy. The layers here, built by Greene and Sheil, are intrinsic, disquieting, and lost in reverie. By the time the film reaches its climax, you realize, as an audience member, that you’re lost in something more intangible than you imagined. And there’s something to be said for that.