On July 15th, 1974 – Christine Chubbuck, an American news reporter that worked for WTOG and WXLT-TV in Florida, committed suicide live on air using a revolver. That morning, Chubbuck covered three national news stories and then a shooting from the previous day at local restaurant ‘Beef and Bottle’, at the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. The film reel of the restaurant shooting had jammed and wouldn’t run, so Chubbuck shrugged it off and said on-camera, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living colour, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide.” She then drew the revolver and shot herself behind her right ear. Chubbuck was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital where she was pronounced dead 14 hours later.
Christine follows the lead-up to that tragic television broadcast, showcasing an exceptional performance from Rebecca Hall.
Antonio Campos is part of a filmmaking collective that brought us ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene,’ (directed by Christine producer Sean Durkin) and Simon Killer, Campos’s last film. Their collection typically deals with dark, damaged souls and emotional performances. Christine is no exception – we start the film in the 70’s smoke laden projector rooms, with Christine’s devotion to her job emphasised as we see her cutting and slicing feeds for the projector, making sure the shots are perfect. She’s trying to advance her career, however the sexism of the era is at the forefront of almost every argument that Chubbuck has with her boss (Tracy Letts); Chubbuck is a woman working in a male-dominated industry, although her intellect and integrity far surpasses those around her. We are also witnessing the transition from film to video in the reporting area, and the audiences want bloodshed – her boss wants to push the station towards the simple concept of, “If it bleeds, it leads” reporting, which conflicts with Christine’s desire to report stories of substance, involving communities, even if they’re not the hot lead type of topics for the emerging video nasty crowds.
Christine has an unrequited crush on news reporter George (Michael C. Hall), she also lives at home with her mother and volunteers at a children’s hospital, teaching lessons to the children via puppetry. We learn that she has health problems, and is told that she’ll need her ovaries removed. She doesn’t know how to relate to anyone, and at some points comes across as a broody teenager desperately trying to get attention, and at other times morose and isolated.
Christine is a slow film, purposefully so – like a proverbial storm brewing, we see how her untreated depression builds to a crescendo as she receives knockback after knockback; her ideas for new segments are continuously rebuffed, a prettier reporter is given a promotion in another state, if anyone gives her a compliment she is suspicious and self-deprecating. Her jealously of her mother’s love life reflecting her own barren world of loneliness strikes a chord, and in one particular segment, she accompanies her fellow reporter George to a community hall (thinking they’re on a date) where she plays a word association game and announces she is a virgin. Rebecca Hall is brilliant at conveying all these intense, awkward and compulsive emotions – the explosive temper tantrums in particular are so real and confrontational that there’s an uncomfortable accuracy to it all – here we see a woman spiralling into a deep depression at a time when mental illness wasn’t as thoroughly researched as it is now. Depression is not pleasant, and people who suffer from it are not always sympathetic – so there’s a fine line that Hall expresses the alienation and isolation of the character with such subtlety, that you’ll be rooting for her one moment, and then cringing the next.
It ends on an unusual note, with her friend from the station eating ice cream in her home (a device she uses that makes her feel happy when she’s down). Since we know, going in, where the story is headed, there’s a feeling of participating in the exploitative nature of dredging up Christine Chubbuck’s life purely for entertainment. If this was a film about depression, why isn’t this investigated further? (at several points, Christine’s mother refers to her getting into ‘one of her moods’ again). It’s ambiguous as to what we’re supposed to take away from Christine – It doesn’t try to answer any questions about how this could have been averted, it just simply shows a life of a woman that was trying to make her mark on the world and heartbreakingly ended up being consumed by it. Rebecca Hall’s performance is stunning however, so if you’re in the right mind frame, you should definitely give Christine a look.
Review by Anthony Self
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