“I hope to become a lady with a little spice.”
You might not know Kate Lyn Sheil by name, but you might recognize her face. She’s an actress with a large body of work including roles on House of Cards, The Girlfriend Experience and Outcast, as well as in films such as Equals and Queen of Earth. Understated but powerful in her performances, she offhandedly remarks with more than a hint of disdain, “If one more person describes a performance of mine as ‘subtle’…”
You might not know Christine Chubbuck’s name, but you might recognize her story. The stuff of urban legends — something you might hop over to Snopes.com to verify. On July 15, 1974, Chubbock, a reporter at WXLT-TV in Florida, shot herself in the head during a live broadcast. Her last words before pulling the gun from her bag and doing the deed were “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.” Right about now, you’re likely thinking, “I wonder if that footage is on YouTube. And if it is, should I watch it?” Don’t bother — you won’t find it. There are no copies of the footage, save the original, which is likely slowly deteriorating into oblivion in a personal safe. The question you have to ask yourself now, then, is “Why did I feel the sudden urge to watch that fatal footage?”
The connection between these two women — Kate and Christine — is not outwardly apparent, but wait. In Robert Greene’s brilliant, captivating “nonfiction psychological thriller” Kate Plays Christine, the filmmaker follows Sheil as she travels to Florida and begins the process of “becoming” the deceased reporter: she has herself fitted with a wig and contacts and undergoes a spray tan to capture the look of someone living in the Florida sun. She also begins an investigation, trying to get inside the head of Chubbuck, to understand why she did what she did and why she did it in the manner that she did. She reads diary entries. She buys a gun. She struggles to understand.
It’s very easy to describe something as “haunting,” but Kate Plays Christine is haunting in every sense of the word. This is a haunted movie — at times it seems as if there’s some unquiet force lurking between the frames. When Sheil visits the studio where Chubbuck killed herself she hears from an anchorman stories of ghostly presences within the studio and control room. A sadness prevails, blanketing the film and the people within it.
Why did Chubbuck kill herself? She was depressed, and didn’t keep this fact a secret. Arguments with her mother and brother seemed to center around her prevailing, unrelenting misery; a misery that was seemingly exacerbated by her inability to fully connect with other people. Unable to attract a boyfriend, she told coworkers that she was a virgin. She crushed on a coworker who did not return her affections. An emptiness grew and festered. It’s tragic, but it’s also not particularly remarkable. As unfortunate as it is, the type of depression that plagued Chubbuck plagues others as well. Suicide isn’t entirely novel for a person in this condition. But it’s the nature of Chubbuck’s suicide that makes it stand out. And we, ghoulish as we are, can’t help but want to bear witness to this. What does that say about us? It’s a question at the heart of Kate Plays Christine, but it’s a question the film doesn’t answer, because perhaps there is no true answer. “We’re a society of gawkers,” someone says at one point. It’s as good an answer as any.
Sheil is remarkable here, playing both actress and detective. There’s a crime procedural aspect to the way the film unfolds, with Sheil putting together the pieces of information she can gather about Chubbuck’s life as if she were assembling clues to crack a big case. But this is a case that’s long since closed — there’s nothing to resolve here. There can be no answer to this mystery. There can only be more questions. As Sheil reads over the somewhat graphic description of Chubbuck’s suicide, her voice quivers ever so slightly, restoring humanity to a subject who has been rendered inhuman through legend and perverse curiosity. When Sheil shows the wig fitter a photo of Chubbuck to match her hairstyle, the wig fitter can’t help but comment, “She’s so sad looking…like the whole world fell on [her] head.”
Chubbuck’s on-air suicide was one of the inspirations for Paddy Chayefsky’s Network screenplay, and Sheil comments on the cruelty inherent in the fact that the script turned the story of a depressed woman into the story of an angry man. There was no crowing victory for Chubbuck as there was for Howard Beale. She was mad as hell, and not taking it anymore — and that was it. There was nothing more. The story passed into something akin to a myth. Most of the Florida locals Sheil speaks with don’t even seem to know it happened.
But the event still exists. It’s on a tape somewhere, in a safe, slowly deteriorating. Fading from reality. Unseen, likely for the rest of its existence. This is a ghost story; an indictment; an unanswerable question. Kate Plays Christine will linger with you long after it’s ended, haunting you; raising questions you’ll never find answers to. This is one of the year’s most extraordinary films.