Antonio Campos‘ Christine (The Orchard, 10.14), which I saw at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, is a smartly assembled if decidedly glum character study of Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), a frustrated, chronically depressed TV news reporter who felt stymied by the then-emerging tendency among local news stations to deliver froth and diversion rather than serious news or in-depth human-interest stories. She was lonely, bitter and pissed off, and on 7.15.74 the poor woman shot herself during a live broadcast. She died 14 hours later.
Christine is a good film, but it’s about ironies compounded within a hall of mirrors. Irony #1 is that Chubbuck would be unknown today if she hadn’t shot herself (she was never going to be Judy Woodruff), and that the film wouldn’t have been made if not for her tragedy. Irony #2 is that Campos’s film wouldn’t be all that engrossing without the on-air-shooting. Take away that sadness and it’s just a story of a gloomy woman who desperately wanted to do a good job but who wasn’t brilliant, lucky or charming enough to make it in a brutally shallow racket that was just starting to understand that superficial giddiness and bubbly personalities were far more valued by viewers than in-depth reporting.
That said, Christine is a well-written, believable, reasonably engrossing thing. Hall captures the testy anger and increasing desperation that Chubbuck was apparently experiencing on a drip-by-drip basis. It’s the best performance of her career, but God, it’s a downer to hang with this woman. We know from the get-go she has nowhere to go but down, and the film, really, is about how she has to go through eight or nine dispiriting episodes before she accepts this fact herself, and we, the audience, are basically stuck with this process.
Christine is tapping into general feelings of anger and frustation that we’ve all tasted from time to time, but after 90 minutes the downswirl starts to engulf you. I found myself muttering to Hall, “Look, this isn’t going to work out…you’re too pissed off, you lack the necessary charm and you might even get canned by Tracy Letts if you don’t watch it…it’s time to do something else with your life. Become a teacher or a newspaper reporter or sail to Cuba or move to Mexico, but get off the pot and blow this popstand.”
But Hall nails the grimness, that drowning-in-quicksand feeling. I was saying to myself last January that she’ll probably land a Spirit Award nomination for Best Actress. That sounds like a dismissive thing to say but a Best Actress Oscar sounds like a bridge too far, given the competition.
The on-air suicide angle was used, of course, in Paddy Chayefsky‘s Network (’76) when Howard Beale (Peter Finch) threatens to shoot himself during his final news broadcast. The Chubbuck wiki page notes, however, that “according to Dave Itzkoff‘s book ‘Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies‘, Chayefsky began writing Network months before Chubbuck’s death and already planned for Howard Beale to vow to kill himself on-air”, and that Chubbuck’s suicide was “an eerie coincidence.”
From a 1.24.16 Indiewire q & a between Campos, Hall and Kate Erbland:
KE: “You also don’t want to dig too deep in your research as a way to explain the why of what happened to her. When I was leaving the theater last night, there was a group of guys behind me who sort of said, ‘Well, they weren’t very mean to her at the studio, so I don’t know why she would do this.’
RH: “That’s the sort of point of the film. There’s no way of saying what Christine was …she wasn’t diagnosed, I can’t say like, ‘Oh, she was bipolar’ or ‘Oh, she was this,’ the only thing I could do was look at the script and from sort of a modern understanding of mental health issues, make some sort of guess of what our version of Christine was suffering from. My take [is] that she was a Borderline Personality Depressive. She’s very, very difficult to diagnose, and very difficult to treat, and nearly always gets sort of slightly pushed aside like, ‘You’re a difficult person’ and even more so, ‘You’re a difficult woman’, tragically.”
AC: “That’s infuriating. It’s so dismissive, too. Like, what? There needs to be a good reason for you to kill yourself? No, there’s no good…”
RH: “No, it’s chemical! It was a chemical thing. Some people just don’t have the tools to deal with the stuff life throws at them.”