The first person to commit suicide on broadcast TV in this country was a Sarasota local-TV news reader named Christine Chubbuck, who, during a show in 1974, took a revolver from under her desk, placed it at the right-hand edge of her occipital bone, and fired. As you’ve doubtless heard, given the tidewaters of hype lapping around Robert Greene’s supremely weird new film, there is, or was, tape of the broadcast, but no one has seen it. Two years later, Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network pivoted on a news anchor announcing his suicide on air.
Kate Plays Christine is a documentary, but often a totally fake one, cheekily defining itself as its own making-of DVD supplement and documenting its own evaporation into near-nothingness. Every scene cries — or whines — about the entire project’s inherent impossibility. She’s an all but unknown bit player in the feral history of American media-life, and when the other Chubbuck film, Antonio Campos’s Christine (starring Rebecca Hall), arrives in October, we can decide what’s the saner approach: trad-tragic biopic or, as Greene insists, refusing to pretend we know anything about her at all.
Greene shows us disaffected indie star of the moment Kate Lyn Sheil “playing” herself preparing to play Chubbuck, for a biopic that exists within Greene’s film only as a handful of clumsy scenes: at work, talking with friends, arguing with Chubbuck’s mother. Mostly, Sheil is the film’s subject, roaming around Florida to interview gun store owners, TV broadcasters, and local historians, many of whom don’t remember Chubbuck at all. She is fitted for a very bad wig, gets brown contact lenses, reads Chubbuck’s diary, muses over Chayefsky’s Network speeches, and confronts the fact that she has almost nothing to work with. The station rarely taped Chubbuck’s midday shows; there’s almost no record of her existence. What we do see of her in old clips doesn’t help: heavy-lidded, slow-talking, dull with unhappiness.
Greene’s strategy is to be ironically inept: His nonfiction wanderings with Sheil feel halfhearted, but the attempts at scenes dramatizing Chubbuck are intentionally awful, staged like amateur soap opera and written in cheap clichés. Because Chubbuck was a swimmer, Sheil is compelled to dive into the ocean wearing that ludicrous wig — it then floats free in a moment that veers toward Method-acting satire. Greene’s derision for every aspect of biopic tourism couldn’t be clearer. Meanwhile, despite her earnest research, Sheil hardly makes the case for her being able to — or even really wanting to — handle the role-that-doesn’t-exist, and perhaps that’s intentional, too.
Either way, the ham-handedness of the ending — the j’accuse re-creation of Chubbuck’s last day, complete with cheapjack squib — plays like a misfire from wherever you stand. Did Chubbuck mean to “make a statement” about gorehound TV news? We’ll never know, though the fact that she was merely “the first” on-air suicide, not the only (calling R. Budd Dwyer biographers!), may be the most troubling aspect of her story. Whether it is indeed absurd to make a film about her, or about TV-mediated self-destruction in toto, is a question Greene doesn’t really answer. But Campos might.
Kate Plays Christine
Directed by Robert Greene
Opens August 24, IFC Center