Monday, June 12, 2017
Christine Chubbuck's name may not immediately register with anyone, save for the most morbid of us - she was the mentally ill television news correspondent in Sarasota who sat down in front the WXLT-TV cameras one grim day in 1974 and punctuated the broadcast by blowing her brains out. The footage hasn't been seen since, but she became a kind of symbol of the times. When Paddy Chayefksy wrote Network, where Peter Finch played a disturbed news anchor who vowed to kill himself on TV, many assumed Chayefski had been inspired by Chubbuck. He insisted otherwise. From what is generally known about Chubbuck, it seems Antonio Campos' Christine is reasonably close to the actual events. Rebecca Hall is spellbinding as the troubled woman, and Craig Shilowich's screenplay, written as a result of his own bout with depression in the wake of 9/11, is a concise depiction of a tragedy. We don't want to reach out and help Chubbuck. We know her mind is made up. All we can do is watch.
Where the movie stumbles a little bit is in the way all movies do when showing us a true tale of suicide. It can never quite get inside the mind of Chubbuck, because such a feat would be impossible. We can only get a few small details and facts. We're told that WXLT is looking for more outlandish, blood and guts stories. "If it bleeds it leads," says the station manager, played by an ancient looking Tracy Letts. Chubbuck, who has been stuck doing dull human interest stories about strawberry season and chicken farmers, wants to do stronger stuff but thinks her boss is an idiot. She's also been told that a recurring stomach ache is an ovarian cyst, and removing it might ruin her chances to have children. She's about to turn 30, which is movie-slang for becoming obsolete, and lives with her hippie mother after a stint at a Boston mental hospital. She has outbursts now and then, snits, really. She has no real friends, though she has an awkward crush on a male news anchor, a neurotic stud played by Michael C. Hall. Her co-workers, too, seem to be getting better opportunities in bigger markets. Meanwhile, Chubbuck remains behind as the bats of depression roost in her skull.
In many ways, Christine is a typical independent film of the millennial era. It's tasteful and well executed, and cinematographer Joe Anderson gives Sarasota a murky tint that works beautifully in the night scenes. Still, there are no big moments, no reaches for drama, as if all directors under 35 are afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Even the moment when Chubbuck kills herself is underplayed. I'm not surprised to learn that Campos served as producer on a couple of recent films, The Eyes of my Mother, and Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, and both could be described as interesting but lifeless. Campos isn't alone. Sometimes I think all indy filmmakers who grew up in the era of Tarantino and hip hop and terrorist attacks are afraid to stick their heads too far out, lest they be picked off. Get the right songs on the soundtrack - this one has a lot of Karen Carpenter and John Denver - but energy and angst are verboten. Why, I wonder, do these young moviemakers hold back?
Strangest of all is the movie's ending, which involves the theme song from the old Mary Tyler Moore show. I get it - Moore played a young single woman working at a small market news station, but I can't tell if Campos is aiming for irony, dark humor, melancholy, or what. It's true that in 1974 when Chubbock killed herself Mary Tyler Moore was probably inspiring a lot of young women to go into news careers. I only know this because I heard Oprah Winfrey say as much when Moore died last winter. Imagine a generation of poor young women trying to follow in Mary's footsteps. Just a decade earlier they were supposed to be stay-at-home housewives, now they were supposed to be running a newsroom. It was probably a hell of a transition to make. It was certainly not as easy as Mary made it look. Many aspiring career women grew frustrated, and decided it was more fun to stay home and make a pot roast than to attend board meetings with a bunch of corporate jerks. There were many, I'm sure, who felt badly about giving up, and at least one who couldn't take it any more and shot herself.