The Real Us?

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 2.]

The shocking thing about watching Christine (available on Netflix) in 2018 is maybe not that Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on live television in 1974. The shocking thing is that we haven’t seen such a thing, or something like it, in the forty years since. She took the logic of “if it bleeds, it leads” to its extreme conclusion. What surprises me is that the Idiocracy hasn’t descended further and faster than it has. I wonder whether Christine (an excellently monotone Rebecca Hall) does what she does because her mind was clouded or because she was more clear-eyed than everyone else. Is she irrational and, therefore, “crazy”? Or is she mentally ill in a Nietszchean way, seeing what everyone else refuses to see?

While such events are, thankfully, few and far between, we know intuitively that where there is disaster and blood and death, there will be viewers. We condemn such naked grabs for attention, clicks, views, and shares, but I wonder how much of it is faux outrage so that we can be justified in watching. I’m intrigued enough to watch the recent documentary Kate Plays Christine, to see how it deals with the events in a film-making context.

Though the actual footage of Christine’s shooting has not been seen since 1974, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gained a lot of views were it ever to be released publicly. We are drawn to train-wrecks. Once we tire of the fake and false, we go searching for ever more realistic—even real—depictions of depravity. It’s not a coincidence that in nearly every serial killer’s background there is extensive use of escalating, violent pornography.

That’s where the film leads me culturally and philosophically. But I don’t want to let such questions cloud the human tragedy of mental illness and suicide that is the real subject matter of thousands of lives and therefore of this film. This is, in the end, not really a film about media and the news business and its crushing pressure to produce whatever will gain viewers. That theme is present, but mainly as a backdrop for Christine’s slow descent into inescapable despair. The film produces a realism as we watch people unknowingly make decisions that feed Christine’s depression. When all is said and done, the cumulative effect of all of those words and actions comes clear in an instant. I imagine that there was enough guilt to go around the newsroom in the days following that fatal newscast.

If Christine Chubbuck were in the news business today, would she have gotten the mental health assistance that she so clearly (in retrospect) needed? Or would her driven ambition been enough to hide her deep need, as it appears in the film? Her mother calls her outbursts of bitterness and anger her “moods.” If mental illness is simply “moodiness,” who needs professional help? And, of course, there are plenty of people who receive professional help who go on to commit suicide in spite of it.

Maybe that’s what strikes me about the film’s realism: no matter what signs a person exhibits, there will nearly always be a feeling of helplessness associated with serious mental illness. If the individual refuses to seek or accept help; if she knows something is wrong, but doesn’t know how to get help; if he thinks it will get in the way of promotion or professional ambition; how will anyone force a person into being helped? You can see, after the fact, what words or actions helped her along the road, but you can’t see how it could have been any other way.

Christine Chubbuck’s actions (at least, as depicted in Christine) are fed and pushed forward by the particular environment in which she worked, but you are left with the impression that if her suicide didn’t take place at a news desk, it would have happened wherever she had been employed.

At one point, an inebriated George (Michael C. Hall) says to Christine, “People are just so funny. … It’s like we all have these different versions of ourselves competing to be the real us.” And that, I think, suggests that maybe mental illness is more by degree than a black-and-white yes or no. While some of us live with the dissonance created by the different versions of ourselves, others are unable to do so. What we present to other people is—can only be?—one version of ourselves. Even in our closest relationships, we find it impossible to convey everything we think, desire, and hope for. We cannot make known in words the depth of our inner experience. No one can feel exactly what we feel, and vice-versa.

There are a number of effective films about mental illness. (The two that come immediately to mind are Krisha and The Beaver.) Add Christine to the list of realistic and heart-breaking depictions of depression on the screen.

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