Chloe Walker from the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford previews this week’s Discover Tuesdays presentation Kate Plays Christine.
“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.”
With those words, on a July morning in 1974, journalist Christine Chubbuck pulled out a gun and shot herself in the back of the head, in the middle of her live TV news broadcast. She was only 29 years old.
It’s a deeply disturbing event, but perhaps the most shocking thing about it is that Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide subsequently faded into obscurity. This year, two films bring her back into the spotlight: Christine is a conventional biopic starring Rebecca Hall; Kate Plays Christine is a documentary about a different actress, Kate Lyn Sheil, as she prepares to play Christine in another biopic.
Sheil heads to Chubbuck’s hometown of Sarasota, Florida, to conduct her research. Initially she struggles to find anything of use; most locals have never even heard of the troubled journalist. Sheil visits the gun company where Chubbuck bought her suicide weapon, and talks to a psychologist about the possible reasons for her suicide, as well as some current employees of the TV station where Chubbuck worked. The most affecting interview is with two of Chubbuck’s colleagues, who are still visibly upset by the events, forty years on.
On her journey, Sheil finds a cocktail of contributing factors behind Chubbuck’s decision to end her life: misogyny, loneliness, depression, the gun culture and pervasive violence seen in the burgeoning twenty-four-hour news cycle.
There’s a central contradiction to Christine Chubbuck’s suicide that is perhaps the most compelling part of the film. In her final words, she despairs at the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ nature of her workplace, and yet she chose such a graphic, public way to end her life. This makes it all the sadder that, until now, she has been forgotten (interestingly the Sidney Lumet film Network was loosely based on her, though the Chubbuck character was turned into a man).
Kate Plays Christine is intercut with scenes from the biopic Sheil is making, and we see the actress becoming ever more comfortable with her difficult subject. The film’s final scene, where she prepares to film Chubbuck’s suicide, is astonishing. Seeing her become Chubbuck right in front of your eyes is both impressive and frightening. It’s the perfect way to end such an emotionally complex film.
It may have taken 42 years, but Chubbuck will no longer be forgotten.
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