Kate Plays Christine
Directed by Robert Greene
Now Playing at IFC Center
A doc-style exercise that zeroes in on the painstaking process of performance, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine follows microindie mainstay Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares for the role of Christine Chubbuck, a real-life television host who made broadcast-news history by shooting herself on air in 1974, at the age of 29. Sheil isn’t gearing up for a separate project, but rather for a suite of scenes Greene himself has devised, so that the film packages together both meticulous making-of and fractured biopic, with the former eclipsing the latter. Sliding between these modes sometimes almost imperceptibly, Kate Plays Christine shows the unsettled self-examination, as well as the exhaustive research, that the act demands of the actress.
The sad-eyed Sheil, who most recently co-wrote and appeared in the mumblecore-ish Civil War period piece Men Go to Battle, travels to Sarasota to dig up what information she can on the self-serious journalist—anything that might help her understand the woman well enough to hazard an interpretation of her. Greene shows this as an intellectual process—Sheil speaks to some of Chubbuck’s former Channel 40 colleagues, and caps off this legwork by cracking the spine of Durkheim’s Suicide—but also a physical one. The actress climbs into a tanning bed, visits a wig maker, and gets fitted with brown contacts as she progressively slips into the part, trying to find her way to a carriage she can’t simply mimic, because any and all footage from Chubbuck’s talk show Suncoast Digest—not just the grisly de facto series finale—proves hard to come by.
Kate doesn’t so much play Christine here as appear as several versions of herself, many of them inspired by the latter’s tragic dedication. As an interview subject, she wonders aloud whether her compulsive need to perform is ultimately an unhealthy one; as an interviewer, she conducts a somewhat more charming form of Chubbuck’s journalism of listening. (Indeed, it was nominally in protest of Channel 40’s recent turn into sensationalism that Chubbuck took her life so publicly in the first place.) Greene—who has made his second performance-based quasi-doc, after 2014’s Actress—eventually finds his star so invested in the subject at hand that she begins to openly rebel against directions that nudge toward melodrama. At its core, Kate Plays Christine, the documentary status of which is itself uncertain, is an absorbing disquisition on the dead-serious responsibility taken on by the performing artist: to come up with as authentic an imitation as possible.