Monday, August 1, 2016


In 1974 Florida television reporter Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on air during a news broadcast with a few words about TV news being ruled by blood and guts. Don't Youtube this; you won't find it. There is thought to be one copy in existence and that is kept under lock and combination. Whether true or not the notion that Paddy Chayefsky based his screenplay for the monumental Network on this incident has persisted. Why did she do it?

Kate Lyn Sheil, an intense New Yorker, travels to Sarasota Florida to find that out and prepare for her role as Christine in a film. She undergoes a slow and often pained metamorphosis, transforming herself into a figure whose witnesses are few and whose story is mostly a mystery. Before she gets to the brunette wig and brown contact lenses she digs into the locale and everything she can find that might give her an insight into the elusive ghost she is to make flesh. When the wig, brown eyes and spray tan go on and we get the intended finished film in glimpses, we set in for what feels like it is going to be a compelling ride. So why isn't it?

Because it never makes up its mind about what it wants to say or how to say it. I don't doubt Sheil's sincerity for a moment but her efforts are given such an evasive setting that even if we wanted to just follow her progress through the construction of this role we simply aren't allowed to. If the persistent fakeness of the wig never lets us accept Kate as Christine with a sense of conventional cinema we are never given an avenue to consider it anything but poor wardrobe. If it's meant to be a fourth wall breaker it's one that neither uses metaphor nor battering ram. The cold video look to the movie scenes and their frequent interruption by the cast as to the veracity of a line or its reading feel contrived rather than assured. Any intended comment on the blurred line between fictive presentation and history is smothered by what always just looks like soap opera outtakes.

Throughout this, Sheil's efforts to earnestly forge ahead and embody her character are repeatedly subverted by the sense that the big idea will be revealed and all will be well. A moment when she reads a Howard Beale rant from Network and delivers it with a studied weariness feels quite pure and poignant under the assumption that that film profited on the act examined here, that Chubbuck finally gets to read the eloquent lines that real life could not write for her. And then in the finale Sheil's intervention in the scene lets her deliver a freshly minted monologue of genuine power. It's scripted but compelling and fulfils the promise we've seen in the better moments of the previous hundred minutes that her intense conviction was nourishing a real performance.

Then we cut from this moment of power to an anticlimactic line which stretches into a needless end title sequence featuring the physical deconstruction of the role around the actor. We are no wiser than we were about Chubbuck's self-destruction. We have seen an actor's struggle with playing a historical figure with no history. Even the question that might have been central as to why bother making the film at all has not been substantially addressed. We are left nowhere.

Director Robert Greene fronted up for a Q and A session and managed to render all his answers to central questions into a rambling vagueness. At one point he dismissed the question of what was real or not as bullshit. Well, sorry, but if you're going to ask us to sit through one and a half hours of an essay (this is, despite all claims, not a documentary) which depends on its audience posing that very question, you'd better be prepared to front up and answer it yourself when your film doesn't.

I'll at least be on the lookout for the future roles of Kate Lyn Sheil.

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