An interviewee in Kate Plays Christine says that “you die two times. You die when you pass away, and then you die the last time somebody mentions your name.” With the release of two films about her life this year, Christine Chubbuck’s name is likely to be mentioned many times more. The video of her on-air suicide, a first in television news broadcasting and a Holy Grail of filmed deaths, has been sought after (in vain) in online forums since it was transmitted in 1974. The closest we come to learning more about her life is through new works such as Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine and Antonio Campos’ Christine.
The former is now out on DVD in the UK, aptly partnered on a double-disc with Greene’s film Actress – another work exploring the possibilities of performative documentary through the process of acting. While it is a crude comparison to treat the films’ lead subjects as two women who are on opposite sides of the same female coin (Christine Chubbuck – unmarried, childless and working in television; Brandy Burre – a frustrated housewife with two children who used to be on television), it is one worth pointing out with the goal of disproving it. The complex portrayal of both women is an indicator that reality cannot be this binary, and while Christine did write at the age of 15 that she wanted to be a housewife and mother, her suicide cannot simply be treated as the result of being “a 29-year-old girl who wanted to be married and who wasn’t”, as Chubbuck’s station director explained the death in 1977.
Greene casts actress Kate Lyn Sheil to investigate and emulate Christine’s life in reenacted scenes, showing the preparation process involved in acting like someone else – tanning beds, colour contact lenses, wig fittings, as well as interviews with locals, reading books on suicide and archival research. Yet no amount of preparation can get to the reality of Chubbuck’s inner world, and no amount of films can represent her story successfully – whether documentary or fiction. Greene’s awareness of this can be sensed in the many layers of Kate Plays Christine, as well as in Kate’s own performance.
In the videotape footage of their reenacted suicide scene, it is not only her performance that consciously and purposely fails to recreate the situation as it occurred, but also the medium itself. Chubbuck’s suicide transmission in 1974 was originally recorded on a two inch Ampex videotape, but Greene’s reenacted scene is shot and played back on a lower quality videotape (recorded with a Betamax camera from 1982), meaning that the tape artefacts/headswitching look visibly different to how the real thing would play back on a broadcast quality quad tape. This failure of form, as well as content, is arguably effective in representing our continuous aspirations and subsequent shortcomings in getting to the truth of the moment. While the original tape would be deteriorated in its own way, the video of the reenactment has traces of degeneration unique to cheaper and more accessible tapes like Betamax, which reflect what Lucas Hilderbrand calls an “aesthetic of access”. In particular, he writes that “the altered look and sound of a text through its reduced resolution present both a trade-off for our ability to engage with it and indexical evidence of its circulation and use.” The real video of the suicide has never been seen since its original transmission (the only copy is under lock and key at a large law firm, and home recording was still very rare in the 70s) but the aesthetic of access in the reenactment suggests a different reality – one which represents an apt timeshift to our present day of hyper-circulation, viral video and expectation of access to any image. The low quality also arguably adds a disturbing effect reminiscent of a horror film as Kate’s eyes meet the camera.
We are unlikely to ever lay eyes on the original tape, as it lays protected in an unknown vault immune to hacking and distribution, together with other protected 2-inch tapes unique to their time period – such as the execution of Princess Misha’al bint Fahd. This moribund format is unlikely to survive forever, or be playable far into the future – an issue that archive institutions such as the BFI are currently battling with. Once the tape of Christine’s death becomes physically impossible to view, it will mark what may be the third death. “You die when you pass away, and then you die the last time somebody mentions your name.” The other time is through the death of the medium in which you are captured. The only glimpse of her that will remain public is the news footage that plays on a former colleagues television screen in Kate Plays Christine, now to be seen in the film, on DVD, by anyone who wishes to. Our access to this will function as a type of preservation, and keep in circulation a recorded moment of her life that is different to the dark one she is so famous for. The suicide will be relegated to the imaginations of those who are fascinated with Christine Chubbuck, and live on in an alternative way through Robert Greene’s work – which makes us question why we want to see it in the first place.