Monday, 23 January 2017

Dead air: "Christine"

The sudden rush for stories about women has led to filmmakers ending up telling stories about the same women, which might not be so terrible: if nothing else, it disrupts the seemingly endless conveyor belt of movies about the men behind the Rettendon Range Rover killings. More curiously, though, 2016 brought two movies apiece about two tragic women, and - having now completed the set - I can't honestly say I know what these films say about us, or the culture they've been released into. First, there came the Florence Foster Jenkins one-two - the eponymous biopic and its French variant Marguerite - which, at a pinch, had an idea or two to convey about the relationships required to allow fragile talent to flourish; altogether more sombre is the story of Christine Chubbock, the Florida news reporter who shot herself on air during a live bulletin on July 15, 1974. Last October gave us Robert Greene's Kate Plays Christine, a tricky docu-drama reconstruction of these events that never let its audience forget the difficulties of asking a 21st century actress to inhabit the mindset of a woman who died before she was born. There now follows Antonio Campos' Christine, a comparatively straightforward narrative account of Chubbock's final weeks.

If you didn't know the bloody outcome of this story, the new film might be approachable as the cautionary tale of a no-nonsense woman struggling to make her way in the beige-brown world of 1970s TV news: part Murphy Brown, part Nine to Five. For just under two hours, Rebecca Hall's Christine butts her head against the glass ceiling while stubbing her toes on a number of other obstacles: a station manager (Tracy Letts) who sneers at her socially engaged reporting, instead pushing an "if it bleeds, it leads" agenda; a smarmy anchorman colleague (Michael C. Hall) who seems unlikely to reciprocate her affections; a mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Margaret's monstrous matriarch) who installs a younger lover in the home she shares with her reportedly virginal daughter. Another threat emerges from within: pains in the lower abdomen that Christine brushes off as work-related stress - but which this 21st century film, in one of its more contentious gestures, invites us to read as incipient hysteria.

Campos first came to prominence with a run of impressively chilly character studies: of a teen so desperate to lose her virginity that she sold it online to the highest bidder (2005's Buy It Now), and sociopaths of various stripes in 2008's Afterschool and 2012's Simon Killer. As signalled by its use of period pop music, Christine feels like a warmer, more empathetic production. Hall, front and centre throughout, commits entirely to making visible this overlooked woman's myriad aches and stresses, whether acting out her neuroses in puppet shows at the local volunteer hospital or, more simply, by the frequent darkening of a newly heavy brow. The X-rays thrown up on screen from time to time similarly speak to Campos's desperate need to get (and to get us) deep inside this woman - yet the trouble is, it does feel desperate. Both Christine movies are acting in frantic retrospect, determined to see coming (and thereby explain away) an act which nobody in Christine's immediate circle could - which is, of course, what made her suicide so shocking. (All those cameras, and so little insight.)

My suspicion is that creatives have been drawn to Christine Chubbock not by the "suicide" part of her story, but by the "live on air" part, chiming as that does with our present culture of extreme self-documentation: this woman finally made people sit up and take notice at the exact moment she wiped herself out of existence. That there is, as Kate Plays Christine uncovered, a tape locked away somewhere showing this act is a story that must have obvious appeal to the world's imagemakers: hence the headlong dash to fill this audiovisual void, this literal passage of dead air, with something, anything. Greene's film was at least instructive about the futility of making a simple movie about anything so complex as a troubled human being, but watching Campos's doggedly linear pursuit of causes that might be turned into effects, the same fascination turns flatly morbid, piñata-ing a woman's corpse to give up answers we want but the film's subject never found. The story has been brought to our attention, granted, but I think Christine Chubbock deserves to be left to rest in peace now.

Christine opens in selected cinemas from Friday.  

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