HUMAN INTEREST STORY

by Chris R. Morgan

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[Note: The subject of this essay entails frank discussion of suicide and depression. It also contains film spoilers.]

On July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck went live on the Sarasota, FL television station where she worked as a field reporter and talk show host, read some news items, and concluded by putting a .38 revolver behind her right ear and pulling the trigger. She prefaced her act with a statement in her copy: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.” Station management thought she had pulled a sick prank. She died later at the hospital.

Ironically, Chubbuck’s death was not rebroadcast, having been stopped at the source. The footage remained locked away, untouched and unwatched, by the studio owner and Chubbuck’s brother. Though references to Chubbuck appear in media moral tracts, novelty guides to “strange deaths,” and the occasional tabloid TV special. In a cultural atmosphere that finds any reason to drop a female cadaver into the middle of any situation, the Christine Chubbuck incident had been surprisingly stifled since it occurred. She was almost entirely forgotten by all but specialists and connoisseurs before two films about Chubbuck were released in 2016: Robert Greene’s experimental documentary Kate Plays Christine and the more conventional Antonio Campos biopic Christine, only the latter of which I have seen.

“[T]he crux of the situation,” WXLT news director Mike Simmons speculated of Chubbuck in 1977, “was that she was a 29-year-old girl who wanted to be married and she wasn’t.” It would be wrong to say that Christine is anymore definite in its protagonist’s motives. The film, like most biographical drama, is a mishmash of secondhand reconstruction and poetic license. Events, such as Chubbuck’s ovary removal that occurred a year before her death, were confined to a shorter timeframe. But at least Christine leaves open a more nuanced possibility. This is helped not so much by narrative chronicle as by the character study provided by Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck.

The film opens with Chubbuck alone in the studio taping herself giving a mock-interview to Richard Nixon. Hall’s Chubbuck is already one of evident intelligence, deep curiosity, and high professional standards. Chubbuck’s stories veer from the lighthearted to the wonkish. They are well liked as “positive” and “think pieces,” but are tacked on at the end of broadcasts in favor of more sensational stories, usually auto wrecks and petty crimes. Her hunger for advancement is entirely in keeping with her colleagues and her generation. But Chubbuck’s uniqueness comes from the teeming contradictions that obstruct the light of any of those attributes.

Her professional life is one of strident self-confidence and destructive self-doubt. She frets over her body language and reverses editorial choices at the literal last minute. Her job is reliant on screen presence even as she possesses remedial social skills. She is aloof with the colleagues who actively befriend her and clumsy with those she wants to befriend. She has next to no journalistic instincts. When she tries to appease her boss’s “if it bleeds it leads” demands, her results show like avant-garde PBS. “It was raw, and the man had an irony to him,” Chubbuck says to Tracy Letts’s news director of one of her misfired scoops.

Her personal life tugs violently between adulthood and regressive adolescence. She lives with her mother, whom she calls by her first name. She pays the brunt of the rent and decorates her room like a teenager. Their interactions veer from chattiness to browbeating to petulance. She is painfully shy and romantically inexperienced. Her ovarian cyst makes her incapable of giving birth. Her erratic mental state makes her incapable of being a mother. Among the most wrenching scenes are the puppet shows she gives to disabled children which decline from charmingly stilted to solipsistic, with Hall’s face taking up more and more of the frame with each scene. Watching Chubbuck faceplant whenever she tries to connect with the wider world is generally disheartening. A self-help exercise turns into a painstaking admission of every setback she’s experienced and every reason why she cannot overcome them. When she finally admits that she is a virgin turning 30, her partner in the exercise looks at her as if she was a burn victim. When the final advice is to “manage your expectations,” Chubbuck looks somewhere in the realm between perplexed and inconsolable.

The “humanizing” root of Rebecca Hall’s performance of a woman in the final throes of depression is how it simultaneously captures how depressives often see themselves: as sentient corrosives. Just as brilliant is the film’s counternarrative depicting what depressives are often oblivious to: the pervasiveness of misery. Sarasota was a fringe market with a low-rated network affiliate. It was, and in all likelihood remains, a prime Florida shithole. The studio is drab, the management is frayed, and the staff is mediocre. It is like Anchorman flashing its pathos from underneath its comedic trenchcoat. Michael C. Hall’s charming, hypermasculine lead anchor is held together by bland self-help nostrums. Timothy Simon’s weatherman is only slightly more competent than his character on Veep. Chubbuck’s fawning camerawoman is better skilled and more amenable to compromise and inadvertently vaults over her. The working world of the 1970s was one in which Human Resources came from the inside.

***

On January 22, 1987, State Treasurer of Pennsylvania R. Budd Dwyer called a press conference. Amid a bribery scandal for which he was tried and found guilty, he was expected to announce his resignation. Before the reporters, Dwyer read a 21-page statement railing against the system that was oppressing him. He described his presiding judge as “Medieval” and his prison “an American Gulag.” “I am a modern day Job,” he claimed. The spectacle was at turns described as a “rambling polemic” and a “long-winded, sad event.” This was before Dwyer had pulled out a .357 Magnum revolver, placed it in his mouth, and fired it. He died instantly. “This will hurt someone” were his final words. The cameras were still rolling when Dwyer shot himself. Footage just before and after the moment had aired on network television.

Two things occurred in the wake of Dwyer’s death. First, Budd Dwyer was largely vindicated. Though by no means a political novice, having served the legislature for 16 years before becoming State Treasurer, Dwyer was something of a naïf. “Budd was too trusting of people,” a colleague said in the Dwyer documentary An Honest Man. “Budd would see everybody. A guy would get out of prison, and was a constituent, he would come to see Budd and Budd would see him!” The bribery scandal in hindsight plays out like a happenstance tragedy of error, of a shifty lifer of institutional corruption playing the rube from Meadville like an out-of-tune violin. Indeed, decades later, the primary witness against Dwyer admitted that he had perjured himself and misstated Dwyer’s intent in order to get a reduced sentence.

All of this was eclipsed by the second occurrence: Dwyer’s ascendance into legend. It was claimed that Dwyer’s act was partly pragmatic, an attempt to retain his pension for his family before his prison sentence nullified it. In exchange, he became an icon of the post-Cold War culture of morbid detachment, alongside David Koresh, the Unabomber, and any number of serial killers. Dwyer’s face of death was all anyone thought of when his name was mentioned.  “Tasteless or not, [Dwyer’s suicide] was a dazzling gesture,” Jim Goad wrote in ANSWER Me! magazine in 1993. “Rather than rot away in the pen with fifty dicks up his ass, he went out blazing, theatrically, on his terms.” Steve Albini wrote a song about him for his band Rapeman in 1988, followed later by tributes from Faith No More and Filter. It is alleged that Albini played the video for Nirvana during the In Utero sessions. More recently, Austin t-shirt company Sex and Death created a shirt depicting Budd Dwyer’s final moment.

Any connection made between Dwyer and Chubbuck, while inevitable, seems to point out more contrast than comparison. Chubbuck was denied iconography; Dwyer was denied empathy. Dwyer’s cultural context makes it all but impossible to see through to the truth: that he was the right person in the wrong place. Though we cannot fully understand or know Christine Chubbuck, what fleshing out we have been given mostly indicates that she was, for whatever reason, the wrong person in the wrong place. “You’re not going anywhere and I’m not going anywhere,” Chubbuck says to Letts in their final meeting in the film with a smiling fatalism they both seem to intuit. Chubbuck’s force of energy and integrity was unrelenting, but ultimately a hindrance when she couldn’t produce acceptable work. “It wasn’t supposed to be different,” she seethes, “it was supposed to be good.” More than a dark timeline Anchorman or Mary Tyler Moore, Christine recalls the 1977 horror film The Sentinel, in which another depressive woman finds the world around her entirely antagonistic to her personal agency, and which she must sacrifice in order to keep that world stable.

Though perhaps for Chubbuck, hers is more a story of a misfit in a world that would just as soon forget her. Whether that’s true or not is a matter of conjecture that will not always be fair. It is to its ultimate credit, then, that Christine is so distinct from its protagonist: warm, understated, and patient. But this is not to say that it offers anything approaching comforting or satisfactory closure. In fact one might come away from the film feeling either examined, indicted, or in some kind of hopeless medium. It is the ultimate human interest story, which bares rather than polishes over those things most human and most interesting.

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