Blood and guts fail to excite in ‘Kate Plays Christine’

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Alice Yu

“Kate Plays Christine” is as perplexing as Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide was bloody and gutsy. The camera lens may be focused on Kate Lyn Shiels, but the documentary as a whole demands a focus on both the immersive art of acting and society’s infatuation with tragedy.
Chubbuck, a TV personality for a Sarasota news channel, arrived at Channel 40’s station July 15,1974 and began the Suncoast Digest broadcast with a newscast detailing three national stories. When the reel for the previous night’s shooting at a local restaurant jammed, she continued to deliver news — this time, her own.
“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.”
As the film follows Shiels during her transition from a strawberry blond, pale, green-eyed expressive girl into the brown haired, brown-eyed, tan, resentful persona of Chubbuck, viewers are pulled into a nightmarish spiral of frustration and connection with character, desired and experienced. Shiels’ immerses herself in the community of Sarasota, hoping to establish a sense of Chubbuck and what pulled her to pull the trigger on herself, but Shiels is faced with the task of grasping for a woman lost to 40 years of history who only appears in scarce evidence, such as the glimpse of a still shot of her reporting or a secondhand story of her public and live death.
With haunting cinematography filled with eerie sound effects, the whole documentary reeks of warning and caution of a tale spinning out of control. The emotional intensity of the documentary bleeds in scenes such as one where the explosion of fireworks are overlaid with a sporadic and metallic ping, a noise that slowly distinguishes itself as a gunshot just as we’re taken from the soft bokeh speckle of lights into the sharpness of a shooting range. We see Shiels practicing her aim, channeling Chubbuck as she prepared for her own shooting.
Shiels’ obsession with understanding Chubbuck’s depressing and resentful personality flows into her own actions, morphing a soft-edged girl into a screaming and cursing actress directing her frustration at the camera and film crew. In her journey to understand Chubbuck, she exposes the torture of working with the deteriorating leftovers of history and properly representing a woman who was neither a hero or villain, but just a human with a sad reality.
From opening the curtain to society’s grotesque desire to chase after the blood and guts and juxtaposing that with desire to cover up the unpleasantries present in society, Shiels and director Robert Greene throw open a conversation on suicide and the struggles to discuss it without glorifying the act.
The documentary itself was slow and lulling at times; even the poignant filmography couldn’t make up for the lack of direction in some scenes. Filming only took three weeks, but “Kate Plays Christine” lacked a desired brevity; watching those three weeks felt like watching three months. In the art of representing reality, viewers were left guessing what was real and what was false; who was the true Shiels and when was she channeling Chubbuck?
The documentary encompasses the art of acting and becoming a character, yet during the Q&A session, Shiels admits she was playing just another character throughout the entirety of the film; the Shiels we see on screen is in no way a candid portrayal of herself. With that comment, she tore down the sense of authenticity and cast a feeling of falsity onto this portrayal of an actress losing herself in another character. “Kate Plays Christine” may have presented a head-scratching performance in mendacity meant to represent the truth, but it succeeds in questioning society’s obsession with flashy stories and blood and guts.
See the film Sunday March 6 either at 10 am at the Big Ragtag or at 6:30 pm at The Globe.