On 15 July 1975, Christine Chubbock, a news reporter for WTOG and WXLT-TV committed suicide by shooting herself live on air. It made the news for a day and was then forgotten. Two years later, Network (1976) was released, won Oscars and now holds a significant place in Western popular culture. It tells the story of a news anchor who announces they are going to commit suicide on air. The only difference between the two, as Kate Lyn Sheil points out in Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, is that the character in Network is male.
In the first segment of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Laura Dern’s lawyer convinces a client to get a second opinion on whether he has any grounds for continuing a negligence suit. She has spent eight months telling him he has no case but he has refused to listen. Within a minute of hearing to the other lawyer’s argument, he accepts that there are no grounds. The other lawyer happens to be male. Later in the film, Michelle Williams’ character visits an old man with her husband. They want to buy the sandstone rubble sitting in the old man’s grounds for use in the house they’re building. Williams’ character does most of the talking, but the old man keeps addressing her husband.
Christine, Kate Plays Christine and Certain Women are markedly different films. One is bio-pic of sorts. The next is an attempt to grapple with notions of representation and the role of artifice. And the latter is an adaptation. But each engages with the role of women in society, how they are perceived, what is expected of them and how they are ignored.
Antonio Campos’ Christine focuses on the period leading up to the journalist’s attempted suicide and subsequent death. Rebecca Hall is startling as Chubbock, all physical awkwardness and pained expressions as she attempts to interact with the world. Desperate to get ahead at work, she is stymied both by her inability to interact socially and the expectations placed upon her because of her gender. In one scene, she engages with a couple that, as she tells them, seem so in love. She cannot hide the shock that registers across her face when they say they’ve been together for three years. There’s also incomprehension – a failure to understand how people can be that happy.
Kate Plays Christine is more vocal in drawing a line between Chubbock’s actions and the way women are treated in society. We see the process of transformation as an actor changes into the person they’re playing. The film also challenges our morbid curiosity with the way Chubbock died. While speaking with one of the people who worked with the journalist, Lyn Sheil is asked why she’s making the film. After all, the man says, Christine wasn’t extraordinary or memorable in any way. In fact, the only memorable thing about her was the way she died. So, any noble intentions aside, no film would exist about Christine Chubbock had she not shot herself on air. The same point is raised, Haneke-like, in the film’s closing moments, asking us why we are drawn to violence and death.
Certain Women is arguably the quietest film in Kelly Reichardt’s incredibly quiet body of work. Adapted from Maile Meloy’s collection ‘Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It’, the film presents three stories that are loosely connected by geography and character. Laura Dern’s lawyer dominates the first. Michelle Williams plays the unhappy wife and mother in the second – whose husband is having an affair with Dern – and Lily Gladstone appears in the third, as a Native American rancher who is taken with Kristen Stewart’s young lawyer when she encounters her at a night class. Each narrative explores the alienation the women feel, whether it’s through the environment they live in, the situation in which they feel trapped or the loneliness they experience. As with all of Reichardt’s films, there is a melancholy tone, bordering on bleak, but it’s countered by the richness of the characters and the understated performances. And like Christine, the film is unwilling to present characters as little more than a cypher. Female or male, they’re fascinating, flawed and all too human.
Ian Haydn Smith