KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE (2016)
Directed by Robert Greene
4th Row Films, 112 minutes, Not Rated (language, brief nudity)
Kate Plays Christine is a manipulative pseudo-documentary written and directed by Robert Greene. This film would deserve but one star, were it not for several decent performances, including that of Kate Lyn Sheil in the title role. But let me get this off my chest: this film is one huge lie from start to finish and one of the most distasteful pieces of filmmaking I've witnessed in quite some time.
The Christine in the title is Sarasota, Florida, local newscaster Christine Chubback, whose name would be lost to history were it not for her live, on-the-air suicide in 1974, which she prefaced by decrying her station's obsession with blood and gore. Here's the first lie Greene tells. It is said that Chubback's suicide inspired the character of Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) in the 1976 film Network. Not so—writer Paddy Chayefsky began work on his script several months before Ms. Chubback's death and insisted it was always his intent to have Beale commit (fictional) suicide.
Greene's film follows Ms. Sheil as she prepares to play Chubback, despite the fact that the fair-haired girl-next-door Sheil looks almost nothing like the exotic, stylish, dark, faintly Mediterranean Chubback. (And despite the fact that Greene didn't waste any money on a convincing wig.) The second lie, often uttered by Sheil herself, is that she's a struggling professional for whom acting is a "kind of disease." Actually, though her film work has mainly been in independent features, the thirty-two-year-old Sheil has worked almost continuously in films and on TV ("House of Cards," "Outcast") since 2007.
Greene's "hook" is blurring the line between documentary and fiction. We watch Sheil go down the Chubback rabbit hole to get into the role of a young woman about whom very little is actually known. So we watch Sheil walk outside the old studio building where Chubback's suicide took place, visit a tanning salon so she can darken her skin, converse with a wigmaker, etc. In some of the film's most pointless footage, Sheil interviews station personnel to try to find out more about Chubback, but everyone she interviews came aboard years later and they have no idea where old videos might reside, if they exist at all. Toward the end of the film, it seems to have occurred to Greene/Sheil to seek out people who were actually at the station in 1974. Lo and beyond, one of them has a bit of actual on-the-air footage that Sheil can use to understand Chubback's mannerisms.
This film could have been about many things, including how a method actor prepares for a role. We know, for instance, that Peter Sellers so completely lost himself in his roles that he came to see himself as a non-entity in real life. Greene suggests that Sheil is also depressive and is becoming more so as she disappears into who she imagines Christine to have been, but this turns out to be bullshit as well. The film could have explored the significance of Chubback's death, but Greene slams that door about a quarter of the way in when one spokesperson/character states that her death meant "nothing;" it didn't lead to changes in how women were treated on TV, didn't spawn a national discussion on violence, and didn't inspire new research or awareness into depression or mental illness. It could have been a character study of Chubback, but that didn't happen either; we are told Chubback was depressed, that she was spurned by a man in which she was interested, and that the loss of an ovary the year before may pushed her biological clock into warp drive, but this is all Psychology 101 speculation. (In fact, available evidence suggests she was severely depressed years before her operation or her non-start relationship.)
Instead, Greene indicts his audience for voyeurism and for this, I cannot forgive him, because he took every option off the table except waiting for Kate to stage Christine's suicide. I confess: I was waiting for this—not because I wanted the see the splatter, but because Greene made it inevitable and I was bored out of my skull. I wanted Kate/Christine to shoot herself so this damn thing would end. But first we had to endure two false starts posing as moral reservations, the second with Kate pointing the gun at the camera and castigating unseen viewers while shouting that she wanted "one good reason" why she should put any of this on screen. The third time she partly aborted, said "Fuck it—it's all bullshit anyhow," pulled the trigger, and face planted on the desk. Sorry, but if Green wants to deliver a message about violence and voyeurism in American society, the least her could do is find an unsullied choir girl. Sheil isn't one; she made the slasher film "You're Next," the blood-soaked "The Sacrament" (2012), and several sexually explicit films: "Green" and "The Zone." Once you know this, being lectured by Ms. Sheil is akin to having Willie Sutton regale you on the sanctity of private property.
I don't blame Sheil for any of this film's problems, though—these are on Greene. Sheil and fellow cast members, each of whom plays themself and a character from the Chubback story that's not actually being made, are actually quite good. Each is all made up with nowhere to go, but they plod along with aplomb. I left the theater after the film's credits, which Greene told us to watch the whole way through for a surprise. I think that "surprise" was that he didn't show a video of the actual suicide and, for that, I am grateful. He glared a bit at those like me who didn't stay for the Q & A. He apparently has little idea of how much respect we showed by staying for the whole thing. I needed a drink—and a shower.