When Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old reporter for a Florida television station, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger in the middle of a live broadcast on July 15, 1974, she framed it as a protest against the increasing sensationalism of TV news. “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color,” she said into the camera, “you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.” By some estimates, only a few hundred people were watching as Chubbuck pilled the trigger. But decades later, her case and her death still fascinate us, and a new movie – titled simply Christine – tries to get to the bottom of why. More importantly, it pokes and prods at whether that fascination is a byproduct or merely a symptom of the disease that Chubbuck died protesting.
Starring Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck, filmmaker Antonio Campos’ historical drama paints a portrait of the early 1970s that teeters deliberately on the edge of camp: Every piece of polyester knitwear contributes to the sense that the past is an alien country that we can explore but never understand. As for the title character, she’s played with an almost robotic affect – a person who desperately wants to be human but can’t quite manage the trick. There are those who try to reach out to her, like a sympathetic co-worker and a gregarious anchor (who seems oblivious to the fact that Chubbuck has a pronounced crush on him). But she’s curtly rebuffed by her boss and ignored by her mother, who’s too wrapped in Me Decade narcissism to reckon with her daughter’s profound unhappiness. At 29, she’s still a virgin, living in a bedroom in her mother’s house that looks the same as it might have when she was 13 — although now, the younger woman is the one paying the mortgage.
This Chubbuck, it seems, is a victim not only of the “if it bleeds, it leads” coarsening of the news business but of institutional sexism, the kind that held that female reporters were better suited to warm and fuzzy local-news stories than tackling serious issues. (It also allows that Chubbuck may not have been especially suited to a career as an on-camera personality.) But the movie portrays her as a victim, one whose only agency comes in the form of self-negation. The only way she can get near the headlines is to make herself one.
Although Christine deals only with the immediate aftermath of Chubbuck’s suicide, the way her story has achieved the status of an urban legend – albeit one based in fact – is threaded all through the film. TV broadcasts, especially local news programs in Sarasota, Florida, weren’t regularly recorded for posterity at the time; before she went on the air that last night, Chubbuck asked a co-worker to make sure that evening’s broadcast was taped, purportedly for her audition reel. (This was long before viewers had the capability to record TV for themselves.) But the tape has long since passed into the realm of urban myth; the station’s owner is said to have kept the sole copy under lock and key, with his widow giving it into the care of “a very large law firm.” There are those who claim to have seen it, but they can give no plausible explanation of how or where, which makes it more likely their minds simply invented an artifact of Chubbuck’s death where none exists.
In a sense, Christine fills in that record/gap, like a crime-scene artist coming in after the body has been moved, and provides the record Chubbuck unsuccessfully tried to leave behind. Although the movie was completely in January, it feels uncannily attuned to the current moment, where the presidential contest turns on a battle between male bluster and female competency. We’re poring over a decade-old recording made on the set of a TV show, arguing about what counts as evidence, and whether people should be judged in the present day for acting in line with the standards of less enlightened times. But it also speaks to the distance between then and now, to a time when things could happen without being recorded, and even if they were, when that record could simply disappear.
And as a million chinstroking think pieces have undoubtedly already told you, this was not the only Chubbuck-related movie released this year. In an odd stroke of coincidence, Robert Greene’s “documentary” Kate Plays Christine premiered alongside Campos’ movie at Sundance and enlisted actress Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards) to take re-enact Chubbuck’s life and death, ostensibly as prep for a “biopic” on the late anchor. Sheil almost immediately transgresses the boundaries of her assigned role, however; by the end, she’s arguing with Greene on-camera about how or even why they have to stage certain scenes. Christine heightens its own artifice, while this second “companion” movie undermines it. You’re not meant to get sucked in; in fact, the movie all but pushes you out. When the time comes to re-enact Chubbuck’s suicide, Sheil points the gun at the camera instead.
Both Christine and Kate Plays Christine are movies in the grip of a sick compulsion, setting up camp at the spot where curiosity becomes invasion, and empathy turns into rubbernecking. We’re fascinated by why Christine Chubbuck killed herself, but do we have a right to know? Are we carrying out her wishes or invading her privacy — and is it possible to do one without doing the other? And if her story is to be told, is it appropriate for either of these men to do it? Is that reviving Chubbuck’s voice, or does it silence her once more?
Nowadays, we’re surrounded by evidence: hot mic recordings, hacked emails, cellphone videos, which circulate and change virtual hands so quickly that their origin gets lost in the ether. But that chain of custody matters, and there’s a fine line between sharing that evidence and claiming ownership of it. Ava Duvernay didn’t have to contact the families of the black men and women killed by police in order to use the videos of their deaths in her documentary, 13th – but she got their permission anyway, and accompanies each clip with a caption to that effect. It reminds us that no matter how many times those videos are reproduced, neither they nor the people they depict are our property. We’ll almost certainly never see the tape of Chubbuck’s death, but its absence has its own power, and even though Christine reconstructs her life, it leaves us aching at the void she left behind.