Kate Plays Christine

"Are you for real, Kate? Or are you bullshitting me?"

"Are you for real, Kate? Or are you bullshitting me?"

This meta-documentary Kate Plays Christine follows an actress named Kate Shiel as she prepares for her role as Christine Chubbock, a news anchor who shot herself in the head live on camera in the early seventies. The film is trying to work on two levels - one, it's trying to confront the public at large about why we are so obsessed with the urban legends around Chubbock's suicide, and two, it is exploring the artistic process of trying to make a film.

It handles the first issue well enough, and I could definitely see this film sparking some very interesting discussions because Chubbock's suicide raises some hard questions. (Her final words condemned her news station for over covering blood-and-guts stories instead of doing real journalism, which create a bit of a Gordian knot, because how do you cover her suicide (which is newsworthy) without giving into the morbidity that she was decrying?)

Unfortunately, those aspects of the movie also comes across as a bit hectoring or too on-the-nose; I really think it's hypocritical for a filmmaker to condemn their audience for being a voyeur when they signed up to spend months and months of their lives mired in a grisly story while the audience only signed up to spend two hours watching a recreation because they had assumed that the filmmakers had crafted a compelling piece of art.

But the less openly philosophical parts of Kate Plays Christine do a much better job of asking interesting questions. For example, the difference between the Kate-is-Kate-in-reality scenes vs. the Kate-is-Christine-in-a-movie scenes raise some interesting questions about what "good art" looks like.

Here's what I mean by that: in the scenes where we see Kate in character as Christine she comes across as kind of flat; she just doesn't display the despair or anger you'd expect of a suicidal woman. But that might not be because she is a bad actress. After all, Kate does a great job narrating, and she's a compelling screen presence when she's interviewing the people who knew the real Christine Chubbock. It is entirely possible that she is coming across as flat in the scripted portions of the film on purpose because the entire Kate Plays Christine team decided that the best way to make their point about the difference between art and reality was to deliberately underplay the film's "art" scenes.

If so, it was a smart call. The juxtaposition of the obviously compelling documentary scenes with the superficially off kilter scripted scenes actually works very well because the vividness of the one makes the other feel so much more artificial. And as soon as you realize that the scripted scenes might have been 'bad' on purpose have to ask yourself: if the flatness of the scripted scenes is helping to make the movie more compelling then aren't they doing their job effectively?

Again, the film presents us with a Gordian knot, because its hall-of-mirrors approach to telling the story makes it hard to tell what is intentional and accidental. Which I'm guessing was intentional. But who knows?

There's one more way that the Kate-plays Kate parts of the movie are very effective: they actually do a good job of challengingthe viewer's voyeurism.

Because when you get a peak behind the curtain you start to realize that you, the viewer, are making assumptions about the filmmakers' intentions that aren't necessarily accurate. Of course I was quick to judge Kate's performance as "flat", but that is ridiculous because I don't really know what she was aiming for; I don't know if the goal was to make a normal bio-pic about Christine (in which case her performance would be substandard) or if she was trying to seem blank on purpose (at which point she nailed her performance.)

I'm very well aware that viewers almost always take it for granted just how much work goes into making a film because I watch a lot of Hollywood movies and Hollywood loves to make movies about how hard it is to make movies. But even though those films-about-filmmaking are making a valid point they tend to be unpersuasive because they almost always comes across as self-indulgent. Kate Plays Christine makes that point in a much more compelling way because it shows you all the work that Kate is putting into her role, all the research and preparation and self-analysis, but she never asks for your sympathy onscreen. (In fact, she acknowledges that talking about acting in a serious manner almost always sounds ridiculous.)

As a result, you end up respecting her - and then feeling a bit like a dick when you judge her or her performance. Then when you pull back a bit you also feel like a dick for every time you've judged an actor's performance, since they probably took it as seriously as Kate did. All of which goes to show once again that it is better to challenge an audience by laying the facts out before them and asking them to judge for themselves, as opposed to having a professional actress deliver a monologue full of "questions" directly into the camera.

So, yes, I did find parts of Kate Plays Christine to be pretty flawed, and there are times when I think it overshot it's mark. (Particularly with it's final scene, which - oof. But there's no point in going into that in specific.) But while I'm not interested in another judgmental examination of America's obsession with violence I am perpetually curious about the complicated way that audiences and creators interact and the way that narrative and reality run head-on into each other, and the film does a great job of exploring both of those areas. And if you'll indulge me in a little bit of Kirk plays Meatloaf action: sometimes Two Outta Three Ain't Bad.

Winner: Me

Kate Plays Christine on IMDB