In July 1974 in the seaside city of Sarasota, Florida, television journalist Christine Chubbuck pulled out a gun while broadcasting the news and shot herself in the head on live television. The whereabouts of this footage has become the stuff of urban legend: locked in a vault, destroyed, squirrelled away for safe keeping by protective colleagues, thrown into the ocean. The Chubbuck suicide tape did not make its way to Rotten.com, it’s not on YouTube. It didn’t appear in any of the six Faces of Death films, nor do kids dare each other to watch it at sleepovers when their parents’ backs are turned, fuelled by the titillation of the taboo and forbidden. The potency of the Chubbuck footage is marked by its very absence: life failed Chubbuck, and the archive failed us.
From the recording of the death of Sadaam Hussein that was (and still is) widely accessible online1 to the urban legend surrounding the death of a stunt man in Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959), screen culture is riddled with visual material for those of a more ghoulish inclination. There is an undeniably heightened thrill of somehow knowing that this material is real, or that it at least could be real. The Edison film company’s 74-second Electrocuting an Elephant from 1903 shows the final moments of Topsy the elephant, filmed by either Edwin S. Porter or Jacob Blair Smith. While debate still rages over who was holding the actual camera, this is ultimately irrelevant from the perspective of the unfortunate elephant. What remains clear is that Topsy was one the first deaths in film history’s growing on-screen body count.
During Chubbuck’s lifetime, another more famous moment of filmed real-life death had made its way into the popular consciousness. The so-called Zapruder tape – amateur film enthusiast Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second silent, full colour home movie of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963 – is, if not the world’s most famous piece of film, then certainly one of its most closely analysed. The Zapruder footage is from the perspective of extreme cinema also a ‘snuff’ artefact, one with profound historical importance. In The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age, Paolo Cherchi Usai noted that the Zapruder tape sold in August 1999 for $16 million, at that time making it “the largest amount ever paid for a motion picture artefact”2 Eight years earlier, Oliver Stone made this material the centrepiece of his Oscar-winning blockbuster JFK. As Usai observed, Stone “makes use of this footage in a fictional account of the investigation on the event by multiplying Zapruder’s 486 frames in a plethora of duplicates, slow-motion enlargements and re-enacted versions.”3
Yet rather than revealing any sudden moment of crystalline truth, the microanalysis of the Zapruder footage has failed to answer the many questions that still circulate around one of the most shocking moments of 20th century US history. For Usai, “ironically, this analytical approach results in a fragmented catalogue of ambiguities, making the original document all the more elusive.”4 The Zapruder tape is therefore curious to consider in relation to the Chubbuck footage: while the former is inescapably ubiquitous, the latter’s enigma is marked precisely by its absence. The more we look at the Zapruder tape, Usai suggests, the less we seem to know – the more abstract, disjointed and fundamentally incomprehensible the event becomes. Yet at the same time, we seem to know even less about Chubbuck’s death simply because the footage has not been released into the public sphere (and in 2016, still remains unlikely to).
This simultaneous presence-and-absence of the Chubbuck footage has proven a site of enduring fascination for both those with a taste for extreme cinema and for filmmakers themselves. The gap left in the broader cultural imagination by this missing footage has, since the time of her death, been one filmmakers have returned to on numerous occasions in an attempt to fill the space she left behind with new visual data, new stories, new ways of comprehending what happened and what its broader cultural meaning could be. With the simultaneous release of two films at Sundance in 2016 on the subject of Chubbuck, the story of her death and the mythology surrounding it appears to still be a site of intrigue in the contemporary imagination.
The absence of the Chubbuck footage is a cultural enigma that we seem almost magnetically compelled to return to, time again and time again. We need to have the space left by that missing footage filled, to pour new visual information into a now 40-year-old tragedy in an attempt to create some kind of meaning from it. That Chubbuck’s death still captivates is undoubtedly a testament to it hitting a sensitive cultural nerve. But one overwhelming question still hovers: when returning to it, at what point does fascination become exploitation?
Robert Greene’s 2016 docu-drama Kate Plays Christine follows actor Kate Lyn Shiel through both the practical research and the more emotional labour required to take on the role of Chubbuck for a soap opera-styled biopic that exists diegetically within the film. Shiel’s performance is, in short, extraordinary – not merely ‘as’ Christine, but ‘as’ Kate, exploring what happens to her moods, her politics, and her physical appearance as the eponymous transformation takes place. In Sarasota, Shiel discovers that Chubbuck has been broadly forgotten, and like many of us, the first glimmer of recognition that triggers Shiel’s connection with Chubbuck is the echoes of her suicide in Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning performance in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). Here, Finch’s television news anchor Howard Beale famously announces his plan to commit suicide on live television, and while responding at first with threats to fire him, station executives decide to exploit the sensational potential of his very public collapse. This culminates in his famous televised war-cry: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
With a title riffing on the film’s iconic catch-phrase, Dave Itzkoff’s book Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies notes that Network‘s live suicide hook “eerily paralleled”5 Chubbuck’s suicide. The Chubbuck incident occurred, notes Itzkoff, while Paddy Chayefsky was working on the screenplay for Network, but its direct influence remains ambiguous:
Whether Chayefsky was aware of Chubbuck’s death at the time he was writing his screenplay is unclear. Months later, he wrote a line for Beale in which the anchor declares he will “blow my brains right out on the air, right in the middle of the seven o’clock news, like that girl in Florida,” then deleted it from the script. But a set of screenplay notes dated July 16, 1974 – the day after the horrific broadcast, when news of Chubbuck’s suicide would have been widely known – makes no reference to her or the incident.6
There is of course also the possibility that Chayefsky simply heard about it later, but what remains more immediately significant is that by the time of Network’s release in 1976 (a whole two years and three months later, in which time someone else involved in the production surely had made the connection, if not Chayefsky himself) Chubbuck’s death was deemed fair game for appropriation.
There is much here to be considered, but for Shiel in Kate Plays Christine, it is far from complex: as she says in the film, “the guy who wrote Network took this depressed woman and turned her into this macho man”. Network in some ways therefore explicitly frames Shiel’s sense of purpose regarding her “playing” of Christine Chubbuck. As she notes elsewhere in the movie, “It’s my responsibility to represent her in some way”. Later in the film, Shiel watches Network on her laptop, literally speaking over the top of one of Finch’s famous speeches. Throughout her transformation, Shiel stakes a claim in a kind of reclaimation of Chubbuck’s story, actively attempting to shift it away from its culturally more familiar association with Finch’s iconic, celebrated “macho man”.
Network was not, however, the only film to evoke Chubbuck’s death. While perhaps not as celebrated in the mainstream, Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981) arguably does something far more profound (and, perhaps ironically for a horror film, less exploitiative) with the material than its celebrated predecessor. The Howling tells the story of LA-based television news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace), who after suffering trauma-related amnesia after her involvement in a murder case goes on holiday with her husband to an isolated country resort called The Colony. Discovering the existence of werewolves here, White decides to use her professional position to warn the public. On live television, she announces that “I have proof and tonight I’m going to show you something to make you believe,” and then proceeds to transform into a werewolf on live television. As her cries turn into howls, White’s sacrifice is dismissed by the film’s diegetic television audience as nothing more than another cynical example of media sensationalism. In its final moments, the film cuts to a number of different reactions to the broadcast: “What is this?”, a disinterested man asks his amused partner as he flips through a magazine. Elsewhere, engrossed, amused children exclaim “Wow!”, casually explaining to their mother that “the news lady has turned into a werewolf!” Back in the studio, her transformation complete, White is shot dead live on air. “Switch! Switch!” screams a panicked executive, as the broadcast cuts hastily to a dog food commercial. In a bar, a barely engaged spectator conversationally comments, “the things they can do with special effects these days”. His drinking partner – equally detached – replies, “it was real. She turned into a werewolf and they shot her”. “You’re plastered,” chides his friend. The response: “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t real”.
Although lacking the reputation of Network, The Howling too evokes Chubbuck’s death in its brutal exposé of media manipulation.7 Unlike Network, however, it frames its futility as explicitly feminine, and unambiguously feminist. Using the metaphorical force horror’s codes and conventions allow, Dante and Wallace unite to create in White a tragic commentary not only on Chubbuck’s suicide, but the explicitly ideological context that framed the act of increasing media sensationalism. Before shooting herself in her right ear, Chubbuck is reported to have said directly to camera: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living colour, you are going to see another first – an attempted suicide”. The Howling is a powerful reminder that Chubbuck’s death was a direct attack on what she perceived as the sensationalist deterioration of her beloved profession. Through the allegorical traditions of werewolf mythology, the message of White’s sacrifice is shown to fall on unlistening ears and unseeing eyes. Her death – like Chubbuck’s – is exposed as yet another in a long line of casually consumed extreme media spectacles.
Kate Plays Christine was one of two films about Christine Chubbuck released in 2016. The other – Antonio Campos’s Christine – is presented as a more straightforward biopic (similar to that nestled within Kate Plays Christine, it is clearly made with a much higher budget). While Greene and Sheil’s docu-drama explores ideas around the ethics and meanings of “playing” with the real death of a real woman, Christine is more directly biographical in its construction and linear in its narrative. The film’s performances – particularly that of Rebecca Hall in the title role – cannot be faulted, but the stark differences between these two films is revealed nowhere more clearly than in their representations of the suicide scene itself. While Kate Plays Christine consciously exposes the apparatus, the tricks of its trade (the tubes, the tape, the behind-the-scenes SFX craft), Christine plays it – like it does Chubbuck’s entire story – completely straight.
By trying to make sense of Chubbuck’s life and death, Christine therefore contains an uncomfortable desperation in every frame to film the gap left by the absence of the suicide footage. Watching it back-to-back with Kate Plays Christine, it’s difficult to not feel a prickle of exploitation at work in Campos’s film,8 particularly in regard to a kind of overwrought pearl-clutching typical of Oscar-bait cinema. For a film that repeatedly attacks Christine’s supervisor’s repeated mantra “if it bleeds it leads,” by showing the suicide as a statement of ‘fact’ (rather than self-reflexively constructing it as an explicit recreation reliant upon a theatrical trick as Kate Plays Christine does), it’s difficult to interpret Christine as anything but building up to a moment of spectacular bloodshed for its own sake. The biopic is – with rare but important exceptions – a relatively anaemic film genre, and something here about the reduction of Chubbuck’s story to its regimented codes and conventions renders it as little more than a classy TV movie. Christine is therefore at best a conservative, pedestrian biopic desperate to make sense of something incomprehensible. By showing the death in the manner it does, it denies the fundamental volatility at the core of the mythology surrounding Chubbuck: it is a film panicked by where the ‘real’ story takes it, erring on the side of sentiment because what lies beyond is just too inconceivable.
Yet it is precisely this very notion of incomprehensibility that lies at the heart of Kate Plays Christine. Even the title itself reveals the urgent subjectivity involved when we take on board and try to draw meaning from Chubbuck’s story. It no longer becomes about her: Kate Plays Christine makes the role of feminine performativity explicit, and Shiel reveals that her desire to tell Chubbuck’s story inevitably – and necessarily – collapses into her own. Through Shiel’s attempts to grasp some thread of meaning from Chubbuck’s death, we forge a connection: not by mining the myth of Chubbuck herself, but rather by finding a connection instead with Shiel through the very process she chooses to share with both Greene and us, her audience.
By tracking Shiel’s transformation, Kate Plays Christine does not seek to answer the same question Christine does: while the latter simply asks “what happened?”, the former demands we ask deeper, more probing questions: why do we need to know what happened? Whether it exists or not, Kate Plays Christine is a powerful reminder that there are probably no answers to be found in the actual Christine Chubbuck suicide footage. But the meaning we have ascribed to that footage and to the mythology surrounding Chubbuck’s death more broadly itself is something else entirely.
- Hussein was executed by hanging on 30 December 2006, and the footage is at the time of writing in 2016 – ten years later – still readily available to view on websites like YouTube. Amateur mobile phone footage of the execution showed far greater detail than officially released video, and further details (including links to the different types of footage online) are on a Wikipedia page dedicated specifically to the execution. ↩
- Paolo Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age (London: British Film Institute, 2001), p. 22. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Dave Itzkoff, Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies (New York: Times Books, 2014), p. 47. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Australian film writer Lee Gambin is currently working on a detailed making-of book about The Howling that discusses the relationship between the film and Chubbuck’s death further. ↩
- At the time of its release, Chubbuck’s own family voiced concerns about precisely this. ↩