Review: Kate Plays Christine

Jacob Powell reviews Robert Greene's dizzingly unconventional new documentary, Kate Plays Christine.

Robert Greene's unconventional new documentary, Kate Plays Christine, investigates the nature of representation and truth to dazzling effect.

Unlike many documentaries that dance coyly around their subject, building an atmosphere of mystique into a carefully considered reveal, Kate Plays Christine tables its cards right up front — only to circle back on itself in a multi-pronged exploration of subjective truth. There’s the despairing truth of a woman who took her own life; the approximating truth of the actress who plays her; the voyeuristic truth of the audience; and through it all, the insatiable truth of filmmaker Robert Greene (Actress, Kati With An I, Fake It So Real).

On its surface, Kate Plays Christine documents the little known story of Christine Chubbuck, a television news reporter from Sarasota, Florida who holds the morbid distinction of having committed suicide on live television on July 15, 1974. But the film explores Chubbuck’s story indirectly, via the conceit of following actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Christine for an ‘upcoming film’. Immediately, the audience is asked to navigate dual subjects; is it Chubbuck we’re learning about, or Sheil?

We open on a voiceover from Sheil reading an oddly bitter-edged passage of future hopes from a 15-year-old Chubbuck’s ‘autobiography’, before the audio suddenly switches to the announcement of Chubbuck’s suicide by a 1970s newsreader over running footage of the suicide recreation scene from Sheil’s film being set. The audio of the newsreader continues into the following story, their neutral and unwavering delivery increasingly foreign by today’s breathless standards — before fading to the dissonant tones of Keegan DeWitt’s intriguing score and the diegetic bustle of the set. The sequence resolves to the film’s title card, word by word, in reverse order, from right to left:

Kate ← Plays ← Christine

As Greene ‘squanders’ the grisliest, most sensational aspect of Chubbuck’s story right out of the gate, and in the least dramatic way possible, even the title is presented in such a way as to leave us unsure of exactly who — or what — his focus is. This blow-by-blow of the film’s first two minutes is an apt illustration of the provocative layering of meaning Greene has applied to the entire film. Kate Plays Christine is nothing if not a head-spinningly constructed meta-inquiry into the hows and whys of ‘truth telling’, which, it turns out, is far more gripping than you’d have any right to expect.

Kate Plays Christine is nothing if not a head-spinningly constructed meta-inquiry into the hows and whys of ‘truth telling’, which, it turns out, is far more gripping than you’d have any right to expect.

Greene’s fifth nonfiction feature, Kate Plays Christine, seems a natural thematic progression from Actress, which also explored self-representation and identity through its subject, Brandy Burre. Having achieved some measure of notoriety as campaign manager Theresa D'Agostino in seasons three and four of The Wire, we find Burre several years later struggling in the domestic roles of housewife and mother. Greene documents her attempts to once more seek her identity in creative work on the stage and screen with a canny blend of candid observation and sculpted performance. Actress’s final image of Burre is cultivated in equal parts by filmaker and subject and, in doing so, it speaks volumes about the intricate ways in which we form and reform representations of ourselves while also trying to fathom and foster some sense of core identity.

A multi-hyphenate, Greene wears many hats in the filmmaking process. Like contemporary Andrew Bujalski, he prefers to edit the material he directs, so the weight accorded to how editing affects the storytelling process is all his. Two-thirds of the way through Kate Plays Christine, Sheil is asked by someone off-camera how she feels about the suicide reenactment. “I feel weird about it...I’m trying to get as close to it as I can,” she replies, the concern showing on her face. A close-up shot of the actress speaking to camera in her temporary home is artfully merged with a shot of her sitting silently in the same position, but in full costume as Chubbuck (including wig and makeup), looking slightly off camera. After a second, she slowly moves her eyes to stare balefully into the camera before a sharp cut to black, the silence puncutated by a jarring reintroduction of sound from a rehearsal of a disparate scene. As loose as some of the more standard feeling documentary sequences can seem, there is always the sense of a guiding hand at work; a contrast that gives the film a provocative and sometimes discomfiting feel.

Greene has written and taught extensively on the constructedness of nonfiction cinema and his own work consistently investigates the nature of documentary as a narrative form (he's currently employed as Assistant Professor of Convergent Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism and serves as filmmaker-in-chief at their Murray Center for Documentary Journalism). In Kate Plays Christine he uses Kate Lyn Sheil (in performance mode) to meet and question candid interviewees as an actress acclimatising to her role. And on occasion—such as a memorable scene in a gun store—she explicitly involves the interviewees in the recreation of Chubbuck’s final days, making them complicit in the staged aspects of the film.

At this stage in his career, Greene has developed a network of regular, seasoned collaborators and it’s no surprise that the standard of production for Kate Plays Christine is exceptionally high. Unlike many filmmaking partnerships, which form at film school, Greene and many of his go to crew met while working together at iconic NYC haven for film lovers, Kim’s Video and Music[1]. Sean Price Williams, who landed him his job at Kim’s, has become his regular cinematographer — here, he expertly blends disparate visual styles, moving seamlessly between a seemingly candid, handheld, and ‘flat’ documentary style into more artful compositions. This aesthetic movement is at its best in a sequence where Sheil, in costume, attends a pier-side celebration to mingle with locals that ends with a beautifully captured fireworks display.

But the centre of this experience is most definitely Sheil herself (another erstwhile Kim’s employee). She gives a performance of incredible veracity and vulnerability, even as the boundaries between the candid versus the scripted suddenly merge into a mélange of puzzling motivations. Greene’s ambitious M.O with this film sets the performer hurdles she handles expertly, acting simultaneously as Christine Chubbuck, herself — an actress researching and preparing for a role — and even as a stand-in for the director. The latter role is particularly in evidence in an emotive closing rant-cum-monologue where she ostensibly addresses Greene (behind camera) but essentially acts as his voice, addressing the audience newsreader style, as Chubbuck did, but reframing the moment as a way of attempting to understand her choices. Boldly directed, with a searching and fearless core performance, Kate Plays Christine is a frequently stunning and thought-hijacking cinematic experience, and one of this year's bill's absolute highlights.

Kate Plays Christine is at the New Zealand International Film Festival


[1] Sadly, Yongman Kim’s East Village video rental fixture finally closed in April of 2014. For some background on the cultural impact of the store read this memorial piece, told primarily through the stories of the store’s staff and customers, including a short section from Greene himself.

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