Content warning for graphic descriptions/depictions of suicide.
Here is a movie based on a true event that does all it can to humanize its titular subject and flesh out its setting, instead of providing a straightforward answer to the question of its very existence. “Christine” centers on a troubled woman with ambition and insecurity, portrayed by Rebecca Hall in a fractured performance, leading to a tragedy where she shoots herself through the head on live television. Textured in both production design and screenplay, with chilling direction by Antonio Campos (Simon Killer and Afterschool), the film is quite a gaze into an uncomfortable abyss, throwing several variables at the viewer for why the tragedy occurred while making them complicit in an act of extended voyeurism. But in the quest of providing the viewer with uncomfortable circumstances and even more uncomfortable questions, all the movie does is get under your skin and make you squirm. Perhaps one can say that this movie is too successful at being, “Based on true events”.
So, yes, the movie fleshes out a few days in the life of Christine Chubbuck, a real-life newswoman who is said to have committed suicide on live TV. The usual worse case scenario for movies like this is that it can be the equivalent of watching someone drown a beloved pet, or a trashy, exploitative exercise that only the most depraved would seek out. But this movie takes an approach similar to the David Fincher-directed/James Vanderbilt-written movie, “Zodiac” and the Gus Van Sant written/directed movie, “Elephant”, in that it focuses not just on the subject, but also on the surroundings and people affected by them. This is both a blessing and a curse. In the right hands, such ugly material is shown from multiple directions in a way that highlights a radical sort of humanism, posing tough questions to fundamental matters that plague humanity and even suggesting answers to them. But even with the best of efforts, it can all still leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. After all, do moviemakers recreate real-life events because they believe in them and want to provoke a discussion, or is it all just a cynical act of profiteering/propaganda etc.? Can cinema truly look at the aches and pains of life itself, or does its physical limits and traits make any and all of its attempts suspect?
After all, moviemaking is an involved process, and whether one makes a documentary or a fictional story, either way one will have to edit it down, apply color correction, add sound effects (or not), add music (or not) and do many other things just to make it presentable. And the act of making it all presentable, especially when one portrays a tragedy like this, breaks the fine line between good taste and tastelessness. Not that, “Christine” does a bad job of sucking one in. In fact, the movie’s production design by Scott Kuzio (working with cinematographer Joe Anderson and several others in production) helps a lot to make one believe that, yes, this IS the 1970s we are seeing here, in all of its dingy, smoke-filled glory and awful fashion designs.
Hell, the screenplay by Craig Shilowich even places its subject deep into a world that is quite treacherous in its own right. Christine herself gets into fights with her male boss, who derides her for wanting to do serious journalism and even calls her a, “Feminist” with an outraged sneer. She fights with her mother, who lives in her place while she is the only one working and paying the rent. She has a crush on a fellow news reporter played by Michael C. Hall, which eventually leads her down the road of rudimentary self-help. She even tries to suck up to the aforementioned boss and HIS boss, a rich man who bought her news station and who dangles the promise of promotion in front of her and the other crew. On top of all of this she deals with loneliness, an aching desire for intimacy and health problems, which she can only make tiny-steps towards fixing because of how consuming her work and ambitions are. Put yourself in this woman’s shoes for a moment: who wouldn’t be stressed out in a situation like this?
But for all of this detail and work, the movie provides no answers, or respite. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an Escher ladder, only not as beautiful and more saddening, and not by fault but by design, though even that begs the question of how much of this work of art is done by intention or a sort of artistic, “happy accident”. Looking at the ugly truths of life is one thing, but the act of recreation that storytelling entails means inevitably making a lot of concessions to get people to want to dive into the story to begin with. After all, would people see this movie if, say, the sound design was poor or if there were no visuals on the screen at all? How can one tell the unvarnished truth in a medium where the very act of editing is possible, if not outright required? How can one provide the gory details of what is called, “real life” without falling into a twisted kind of voyeurism or worse, making what one often derides as, “propaganda” or schlock? Those are hard questions that most movies based on real-life events like, “Christine” don’t answer, instead adding extra details and attempts at humanization to address unrelated questions (not to mention that there is a documentary called, “Kate Plays Christine” that I hear is supposed to answer these very questions, which…to be honest, I am not enthusiastic about seeking out). In the quest for truth and precision, all one can manage is just another story. A very well made story, and let me just say that moviemaker Antonio Campos has been a master at skin-crawling character studies for a long time, but…you know.
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