On Gender Politics on Screen, the Authenticity of Moving Images, and the Nature of Performance
Documentarian Robert Greene’s three most recent films — Fake It So Real, Actress and the new Kate Plays Christine — are all concerned with the nature of performance. Kate Plays Christine mixes elements of fiction, documentary and essay as Greene depicts actress Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to play the role of real-life news anchor Christine Chubbuck in a narrative film, whose tormented making Greene chronicles. Chubbuck committed suicide on the air in 1974, after reading a note criticizing her station’s devotion to “blood and guts” programming. Kate Plays Christine is an investigation into the representation of violence and death, and it’s proved to be Greene’s most controversial film so far. The “fiction” portions of the film are distinctly artificial, using a palette of saturated colors and exaggerated makeup. And the ending, in which Sheil directly confronts Greene and/or the audience, has proven divisive. However, Greene is aiming for an active spectator. He wants the audience to imagine a better ending if they dislike the one he and Sheil imagined. Studio Daily spoke with Greene, who now teaches in Columbia, Missouri, in New York in June 2016.
StudioDaily: How has writing your column for Sight and Sound and teaching full-time affected your perspective on filmmaking?
Robert Greene: The column began with Hammer to Nail and moved over to Sight and Sound while I was making Actress. It was a way of talking about the ideas which were going to be in the movie, which I didn’t realize at the time. I wanted to start talking about documentaries in a certain way, because I wanted to go in that direction. I had to take more of an extended break from the column than I wanted to in order to make Kate Plays Christine. I just feel like it really helps me. The processes of writing about movies and making movies are related but completely different. It keeps me thinking about the elastic possibilities of documentary in general. That’s something I’m excited by. I still get excited by it. They talk to each other in complex ways. Teaching poses a risk, because for movies that are supposed to be formally adventurous, if it gets too didactic in a professorial way, they will not work. But my job as a professor is to get people to think in didactic terms. It makes me nervous about how these things will relate, so I’m trying to be as atypical a professor as possible. I don’t want to give lectures to students and have them watch a movie and regurgitate back my lecture. But it’s also always good to be around eager people who want to make movies. These students were part of the process for Kate Plays Christine.
Of your past four films, three are about women. What attracts you to female subjects?
Well, I have an interest in identity, performance and gender. Gender and performance are related, obviously. My films are all really about gender in some ways, even when they’re about men. When a man’s filming a woman, there’s a tension in the process that is necessarily complex. When women are being filmed by a camera held by a man — or even when men see images of women, because the camera doesn’t even need to be held by a man — it’s automatically layered. You’re not seeing the person but the person having to perform in a sexist world. She has to negotiate a system. It would be a less interesting film if it were a dude playing Christine or a similar concept. The politics of the image are gendered. I want to make films where you’re reading into it. If I was a woman filming a man, I would try to find other ways to find those layers in the image. The politics of being a woman on screen are different from being a man on screen because of the society we live in. That leads to something documentary is good at exploring in its form. At the same time, I want to make movies about both men and women.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot Kate Plays Christine?
Sean [Price Williams] shot with an FS7. He has used a Sony FS7 for a number of films, but these are the same old-school lenses that he used for Heaven Knows What and other films. It’s a camera he’s very comfortable with. I shot some of the Ross brothers’ Contemporary Color with it and became comfortable with it very quickly. It’s a beautiful, incredibly sensitive camera.
With the wig, spray tan and makeup, Kate looks incredibly artificial as Christine. Was that intentional?
Incredibly intentional. The film is about how we can’t bring this person back to life and it’s a folly to try. The artificiality of the makeup is crucial to the whole thing. You have to look at her face and see, “This is a person in transition. She’s never going to get from Kate to Christine.” When you see that wig for the first time, I hope most people go “Whoa, that’s terrible.” That’s a risky thing to do in the movie, to put something in that makes people question its very nature.
As far as I know, you grew up relatively poor. Although none of your films have been hits, do you think filmmaking has given you an entry into the middle class?
No. I think there is such a thing in this country as the artist’s class, people who make work and can somehow sustain it. I guess I said no because we continue to struggle with money even though our life is more stable. In a sense, my kids’ life is much more comfortable than mine was. Even though we struggle, we rent a nice house in Columbia, Missouri. I have a pretty middle-class kind of job, teaching. In a sense, it comes from filmmaking, but it also comes from my mother-in-law and my wife Deanna working her ass off. Filmmaking is a part of that equation, but if I was using this much mental energy to work a normal job, I would have a more comfortable life. What’s weird about coming from poverty is that money is never really a concern now. I want my kids to have things I didn’t have. That’s a pretty easy bar to reach. I want them to have new shoes for school. I couldn’t have them unless my grandmother bought them for me. I need to be a bit more stable because I’m getting older and I need to take care of everyone. I don’t feel entirely middle-class, but I do have a very bourgie house. That’s a complicated answer.
It’s a complicated question.
Maybe I’m slowly entering it and don’t realize it.
There are two films that Kate Plays Christine reminds me of: [Michael Haneke's] Funny Games and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence. Were you thinking of either of them?
A Moment of Innocence is an absolutely essential film. I don’t even think about Makhmalbaf or Kiarostami anymore. That cinema is as important to me as Frederick Wiseman or Douglas Sirk or Cassavetes or Fassbinder or anybody. That’s a very flattering comparison, which I’m sure Kate Plays Christine doesn’t live up to. A Moment of Innocence is a perfect object. What I love about those films is that the tension between reality and fiction is the starting place for some deeper exploration. A Moment of Innocence is about guilt and politics in a very specific way. It’s about the history of Iran and how Makhmalbaf fits into it. He takes the form of the film to be the best way to read those layers — absolutely crucial to how you read Kate Plays Christine! It’s not about the form itself, it’s trying to get to something deeper. I wasn’t thinking of Funny Games. Some people have said derisive things about the ending of the movie, that it’s like Michael Haneke. I think it’s great that Haneke attacks his audience sometimes. We all should be attacked, filmmakers and audience alike, for the strange thing of watching movies. But the ending is most Haneke-like, and that’s Kate. She was pointing that gun at Sean and I. I didn’t script her to say “You’re a bunch of fucking sadists.” She could’ve said “I’m fine, I’m glad we did this.” She could’ve said “I’m getting up. I’m not talking to you or considering you my friend anymore.” As much as it seems fabricated and constructed, it’s totally real and genuine in the moment. That Haneke comparison was a product of something documentary.
I was planning to ask if that line was the starting point for your script, actually.
There is no script. In fact, it’s such a dangerous line to put in the movie that it seems didactic and disturbing. I’ve hoped we’ve built a framework where you’re questioning that perception. Besides, the movie doesn’t end there. It keeps going. There’s a whole credits section with more images. If a viewer feels attacked at the end of the movie, they were in that place with the movie. Others think Sean and I were attacked. It’s all a valid interpretation.
Is it actually true that [the satirical 1976 TV-business satire] Network was inspired by Christine?
So, that’s always been what people discuss. There was a draft written before her suicide. Then there was a draft that had her referenced. I think the movie itself was inspired. It was changed a lot, but one of the horrible things about what she did is that it felt very much of the moment. It got knocked out of the headlines by Nixon resigning. It tapped into this feeling of angst that was in the air in the early ‘70s. It was very zeitgeist-y.
Have you seen the Antonio Campos film about Christine? [Like Kate Plays Christine, Campos's Christine debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January –Ed.]
I have. One interpretation of my ending is that it’s an attack on the idea of making a film about Christine. It’s more a self-inflicted attack. It’s about us and our process. I’m not saying he should never have made Christine. I don’t know how Antonio feels about our film. I’m the worst viewer for it, in some ways. I feel so strongly about the subject that there are some things in it that just don’t work for me. I think he probably feels the same way. But the movie is also a strange object. It does all these crazy tone changes. It’s exciting to watch that. Rebecca Hall is extraordinary. She does this thing with her voice which is haunting, where she takes Ohio and brings it to Florida and interprets it through who Christine Chubbuck was. I have a complicated relationship with his film. Antonio probably does with ours. We’ve spoken a lot about it. We both knew we were making films about the same subject at the same time. I love the fact that Sundance programmed them at the same festival. It really helped create a conversation.
Do you feel like you’ve exhausted what you have to say about various types of performance?
In a way, yes. But I hope to discover new ways of talking about it. Kate Plays Christine takes it as far as you can go in some ways. Recognizing that we’re always performing can be taken in a number of ways. The next two project ideas I have still have that as an element to them. I think this is the last of a certain line, but I hope to continue in a new line. I’m attracted to instability in form — films that feel like they’re falling apart or emotionally dangerous. There is something about questioning this precious feeling of authenticity in documentaries. Authenticity in real life is very important, but moving images are never authentic the way they’re sold. It’s crucial that we make films that make you think about that inauthenticity, and performance is one way you can do that.
Kate Plays Christine opens at the IFC Center in New York City August 24 after a preview screening at 7:30 p.m. tonight, with Robert Greene in attendance for a post-screening discussion. Engagements are planned in North Hollywood, CA; Omaha, NE; Cleveland, OH; Seattle, WA; and Boston, MA. For more information, visit the film's official website.
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