Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2016 6:52 pm 
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The key to the treasure is the treasure

Robert Greene is a filmmaker who likes to blur the borders between real and fiction. His Actress (Art of the Real 2014) was a somewhat tedious chronicle of Brandy Burre, a thespian who leaves "The Wire" to tend to her family, then seeks a return to acting, while her marriage disintegrates. Playing herself, she often seemed to exaggerate. This time he follows a young actress again, but for something agonizing, obsessive, and thought-provoking. Kate Lyn Sheil ("House of Cards," Alex Ross Perry's two features) goes to Sarasota, Florida to prepare a part she is to play. It is that of Christine Chbbuck, the TV news person who shot herself to death on air in Sarasota, Florida in 1974 in a chain of events that inspired the film Network. Shiel's intensive personal researching of the role leads us into a lot of interesting, troubling topics. Greene's screenplay won a Sundance writing award. Guy Lodge called Kate Plays Christine "a teasing, testing and vexingly brilliant new film" in his Variety review.

If anything this docudrama (Lodge calls it a "performance-based documentary") is even more drawn out and painful to watch than Actress was. But we get really close to Sheil, whose ordeal comes to life; real people who knew Chubbuck and witnessed her suicide come on screen; and the DV photography, especially in the early segments, is surprisingly beautiful. The only trouble is that one may wind up feeling a bit cheated and empty when one realizes that the film Kate Lyn Sheil has been working on so hard doesn't really exist. The research for the role is the role; or, as John Barth put it in his Russian-doll narrative Chimera, The key to the treasure is the treasure.

Right at the beginning Kate is heard reading from a diary Christine Chubbuck kept as a teenager where she expresses a dislike of not being able to do her best: "If there’s anything that leaves a sour taste in my mouth, it’s failure." Then Kate talks about her own intimate feelings being an actress. She explains why it fulfills needs, but thinks it's a little unhealthy; and involvement in her roles tends to go too deep and last too long. These are standard ideas, and Kate is something of an empty vessel. The psychological dangers in over-researching a role, which is what she is going to do, seem considerable this time. If ever there was a good time not to be a method actor and focus instead on cool, detached technique with minimal preparation (or emotional involvement), it would be when playing a bitter, lonely, depressed, frustrated young woman who kills herself on the air. But Kate wants to understand.

At all times at least two things are going on: the observation of the actor's process, and exploration of the sad life of the woman she is preparing to play. We not only learn a lot about Christine Chubbuck; we continue to share Kate's stubborn inability to penetrate into the feelings that led to such an extreme act. But we learn the details. Christine felt hampered as a serious television news journalist by the simplistic police-blotter obsessions of her station director. She was close to her mother and her gay brother; we hear about them, and also meet the actors ostensibly chosen to play them. Otherwise, she was virtually friendless - a situation that had long troubled her - and, though nearly thirty, she was still a virgin. But worse things can happen, and she had a glamorous job. Kate is delving. But is she finding motivation? No.

In Greene's ingenious, yet troubling, structure the line between the "documentary" and the "film" increasingly blurs (helped by dp Sean Price Williams’ camerawork) as we meet other actors variously chosen to play Christine's mother, her brother, and her TV bosses and coworkers. Kate's preparation includes being fitted for, and repeatedly wearing, colored lenses to change her eyes from blue to brown, and a long black wig approximating Christine's hair style. She buys cuddly dolls to fill her local bedroom like Christine's bedroom, which we learn her brother had fitted out for her to be like a young girl's. Kate goes to a tanning salon to acquire a Florida TV look. She shops for an appropriate outfit. She begins talking to local TV people who were working at the time of Christine's death, and to several people who knew her or her family. The other actors talk about themselves. Kate goes to the current incarnation of The Bullet Hole, the gun store where Christine bought the fatal revolver, and discusses, with a man who has worked there many years, the procedure used when purchasing weapons in the early Seventies. She obtains a pistol. She even goes to a firing range and tries her skill. The attendant declares her "a natural."

Yet the more Kate explores her role, the less she feels able to play it. The more thorough the investigation, the more distant Christine Chubbuck seems to her. We begin to see Kate, in full makeup as Christine, acting with those playing Christine's mom, her brother, her director, her producer. These scenes don't look like a real film; they look like Seventies TV, a bad "soap." But isn't that somehow appropriate? Only we begin to realize, if that was not obvious from the outset, that there is no "film." (Was this not in fact frustrating, somehow, for Kate herself? But she is a veteran of oddball indie films.) But paradoxically, a lot of what this film shows us is obviously nonetheless in some way "real."

Some manipulation (but wait: isn't this all manipulation?) shows only toward the end, in the climactic way Kate finally gets to meet the TV people who actually have what she has been ostensibly been wanting all along: not the tape of Christine shooting herself on screen, because that's reportedly locked away somewhere in a single copy, but footage of the real, living Christine doing an on-the-air interview. By this time I was so involved it seemed as much a shock to me as it might have been to Kate. Now there are two impossibilities: Kate's inability or unwillingness to recreate Christine Chubbuck's final fatal performance, and her lack of similarity to this woman who seems more forceful and yes, more intelligent, not as pretty, but stronger and more confident, the alleged dissatisfaction and unhappiness invisible.

And then we come to the rather melodramatic, drawn out, repetitive reenactment, when the film really becomes torture to watch. Kate is set up to perform Christine's final scene. Everything is set up for it, following every moment, every pause, every word, of the actual event. But she can't quite bring herself to do it.

I hated this film. I looked at my watch many times. Yet there is something classic about it. Certainly not a date movie, but a movie you could build a whole college course around. There are levels of material to use. To begin with, not only did the death on air of Christine Chubbuck lead to the movie Network, but this year there is another treatment of the theme. Also coincidentally debuted at Sundance this year, it's Antionio Campos' "vicously funny character study," as Guy Lodge called it in Variety (he reviewed that at Sundance too), a provocative but straightforward narrative film treatment of Chubbuck's life and death, called simply Christine. It's just the kid of film Kate is allegedly preparing for, but with Rebecca Hall in the lead. I haven't seen it yet, but it would be included in the same film course, naturally. Which film would you want to see first? Kate Plays Christine has inspired more enthusiasm in cerebral critics, but the larger public may gravitate to Campos' more mainstream provocation.

Kate Plays Christine, 112 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2016, winning the Screenwriting Award; two awards elsewhere; shown at a dozen other festivals. US theatrical release Wed., 24 August 2016 in NYC at IFC Center.

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