Born in a small Ohio town in 1944, Christine Chubbuck devoted her life to television. She majored in theater, later earning a degree in broadcasting. In her professional life, she worked at a few radio and television stations throughout the late 1960s before working as a hospital computer operator and eventually taking a job at an ABC affiliate, WXLT-TV, located in Sarasota, Florida. There, on July 15, 1974, during a morning show, after reading a newscast about a shooting at a local restaurant, the 29-year-old Chubbuck committed suicide—and live on the air.
Interest in this gruesome event has been renewed by two films, both of which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The first, Antonio Campos’s Christine, starring Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck, has its eyes set on Oscar glory. The second, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, is a fascinating, more unconventional docu-fiction hybrid that’s as much about the events leading up to Chubbuck’s suicide and the sensationalism that draws the populace’s attention to such real-life horrors as it is, per our own Chuck Bowen, “the element of performance that’s integral to documentaries.” The film features Kate Lyn Sheil investigating Chubbuck’s life as an existential dilemma, trying to sufficiently embody a persona that almost resists embodiment.
I sat down with Greene and Sheil to talk about this provocative project, its depiction of Chubbuck’s drive toward suicide, the differences between “acting” and “performing,” and Greene’s fascination with the death of Kurt Cobain.
When I first heard about your film premiering at Sundance, I wondered why anyone would want to recreate someone’s suicide. What was so fascinating about Chubbuck killing herself on live television?
Robert Greene: Your question is precisely the reason I was fascinated by the story. It’s the kind of story that makes you think about why you want to do it. I think it was the very nature of Chubbuck’s life leading up to that act, as well as the contradictory, complex, nasty performance of the act itself. It immediately makes you think: Why? There has to be a reason. Human nature tells you to ask this very question. But by recreating it, I’m not trying to explain suicide. I’ve been thinking about this for 10 years or so, and I was never able to figure out how to tell it until I made a documentary with an actor which was called Actress, my last film. That was it. Watching someone else process things, going through an attempt to represent something—that’s the way in. The name Kate Plays Christine also came with this concept.
Kate, what was your way in to Kate Plays Christine?
Kate Lyn Sheil: Robert came to me and simply asked me to be involved. We’ve known each other for about 10 years now, and we’re in the same circle of friends. We talked and that was actually the first time I heard about Christine Chubbuck. I was immediately fascinated by her, but I questioned my fascination, just as Robert did. Ad the film is an extrapolation of that, of being very drawn to her story, but questioning her motivation.
RG: To continue with that thought, I feel like a lot of stories start from a place of questioning your motivation to cover something. Then you work toward it, and then you maybe reach a point in which you already figured out your reasons. The more you work on something and the closer you get, the stranger it is and the harder it is to understand. The closer you look the less it makes sense. It was sometimes our case with Kate Plays Christine
KLS: I think the obvious thing here is the sensational nature of her death and the lack of information available on her on the Internet, despite the fact that she made her death a public act. If she had committed suicide today, there would be absolutely no shortage of details, about every single aspect of her life, readily available to us.
RG: I think it was because of the era we’re talking about: the 1970s. She was a journalist making a political statement which was quite contradictory in its nature. She was saying she’s against “blood-guts” television by doing the most “blood-guts” thing ever. And then the whole thing was wiped out, nothing to be found, like it never existed. There was a hole that we wanted to fill.
And you decided to fill the hole by focusing on the preparations leading to her committing suicide on TV.
RG: Suicide is a challenge to our being. We’re built to survive, to avoid being hit by a car. We’re not built to take out a gun and shoot ourselves in the head. It’s a direct challenge to everything we take for granted as living beings. As with many other challenges, the easy thing to do would be to put it in a box and put it away. Of course, in that situation, you’d prefer to think that hers was a case of some sort of chemical imbalance, that she was sick or crazy and that’s why all of this happened. Feeling satisfied about finding the reason, you just happily put it away and forget about it. It was the ’70s, when depression was misunderstood, of course. But the nature of how she did it, the contradictoriness of it, the anger, sadness, loneliness of it, the ego that it took to do it—all of it, you simply can’t put it away. It can’t be that easy this time. Our film is about us not being able to put the story away.
I remember when Kurt Cobain killed himself, I was just 18 years old and it was the most horrible thing in my life. He was a true hero to me. There’s nothing cynical about my feelings for Nirvana, as I admit that their music changed my life. I clearly remember being a teenager, listening to everything they’d done. After Cobain killed himself, it made me angry to think that we could have actually seen it coming—that there must have been someone who could have done something. Of course, it’s crazy to think about it that way.
Or, another example, Chantal Akerman. I remember watching Akerman’s films thinking that it was just great that someone can do this work of madness and reach the limits and at the same time be so productive. And then she kills herself. What can you do? You go through her work again considering that this line of madness is actually a line of sickness. And I hate that feeling. Suicide makes you go back and look at someone’s life through later events. Neither Cobain nor Akerman’s achievements meant suicide, of course. Akerman was a great artist, who was exploring aspects of her darkest selves and that took her to that place. She’s not defined by it. But still, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch Je Tu Il Elle without thinking that she killed herself. I won’t be able to listen to a Nirvana lyric about a gun without obsessing about guns.