Though mainly a biopic, Christine (2016) could be viewed as a horror of the banal. A friend of mine who is a horror aficionado just happened to post his review of the film on Zuckerbook this week, and even if I’d had any doubt about watching it after checking out the trailer on YouTube (I didn’t!), I would have been thoroughly convinced by Netflix declaring it a 93% match for my personal tastes.
Quick context for the uninitiated: in the summer of ‘74, while the downfall of Nixon dominated American airwaves, a real-life young reporter in Sarasota, FL named Christine Chubbuck shot herself on live TV. She was probably the first person ever to do so.
That said, the intent of this dramatization of Chubbuck’s life is ambiguous. Now, I am on board with – and often prefer – films that do not attempt to put across a heavy-handed social message or that matter-of-factly show us a parade of absurdity. But admittedly the trailer for this one set me up for something very different than what I got. It implied a classic “the ‘crazy’ person is actually the sane one” trope, it hinted at the rampant sexism in 70’s society at large and in the TV news industry particularly, AND it created an expectation that this ambitious, passionate young woman would be surrounded by d-bags.
As it turned out, the movie’s focus turned out to be none of those things.
Though it may spark good feminist discourse, Christine isn’t exactly a feminist film. It’s clear early on that the main character is mentally ill, not as a direct result of mistreatment, but because she just is. The people around her, though flawed, are largely not malicious, yet despite being desperately lonely she is too crippled by her neuroses to connect with any of them. Her setbacks are indeed terrible, but also she is rigid by nature (possibly undiagnosed ASD?) and thoroughly incapable of adjusting her mindset to adapt to them. She only displays more agreeable behavior once she is harboring, with almost smug satisfaction, the awful secret of how she has decided the story will end.
While Christine initially makes great points to her boss about the increasingly sensationalist news industry – something that the trailer is careful to emphasize – it must be noted that she is not a woman of deep principle. Her desire to be accepted and liked is the more powerful impulse, and she begins to fluctuate between misfiring and going overboard in trying to deliver the sordid fare she thinks is in demand.
Not to mention that, despite being portrayed empathetically, Christine the character is a tad scant on empathy. She is bitter and unable to be happy for others, yet her development is arrested and she wants others to nurture her.
I should note, though, that the very lack of sentimentality that spurs me to say all this is the essential component that makes this film work. The subject matter could have been insufferably maudlin otherwise, but it is good for the film that we don’t always like Christine.
In my case, certain tendencies I exert effort to resist – a lifelong sensation of outsider-ness, difficulty self-monitoring, trouble using my words and sharing, an assumption that I’m too niche to be understood – are actually what made me dislike Christine as a person all the more. In fact I’d wager that lots of fairly well-adjusted oddlings look at someone like this and see themselves in a worst-case alternate reality, sans the adaptability, resilience, or self-deprecating humor they’ve cultivated as tools of survival. This, understandably, comes with a certain repulsion.
Probably the most disturbing part of Christine is the squandered potential. It was hard to watch circumstances that could have been workable and eccentricities that could have been charming persevere toward catastrophe. It’s particularly when Christine does her volunteer puppet show for sick kids that we see glimpses of light through the dark curtains. With the puppets as stand-ins, she magically becomes clear and expressive, channeling through them all the things she wishes she could tell people, trying to sow the seeds of a kinder, more accepting generation. And because the movie continues past The Main Event and visits with each character in its aftermath, we see the shockwaves that inevitably ripple forth from a loss of a large personality, even one who in life was hard to love.
There are discussions about the perceived triteness of the film’s last scene, in which Christine’s former friend and colleague, another young single woman trying to make it in the da biz, arrives home from the suicide scene, eats ice cream (her self-proclaimed comfort food), and sings along to the theme song of Mary Tyler Moore on TV. I suppose folks think it’s 1) unearned, given the film’s refusal to otherwise adopt a political stance, 2) too on-the-nose, and/or 3) reductive. I understand all of those takes; however, though I think it might run a bit too long, I agree with the choice to include it. If it seems arbitrary, that’s because awful things happen arbitrarily, and most of us go on – maybe we get a little TOO skilled at going on – and it IS absurd… and that’s it. Lack of a point IS the point.