Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Moral Quagmires: Kate Plays Christine (2016) and American Animals (2018)

Kate Lyn Sheil as Christine Chubbuck in Kate Plays Christine. (Photo: Variety)

My last week's piece on The Disaster Artist (2017) brought to mind two other films in the genre of quasi-documentary: Kate Plays Christine (2016) and American Animals (2018). All three films place the viewer in a morally awkward position – for The Disaster Artist, the position is that of identifying with not Tommy Wiseau but those working for him.

Kate Plays Christine is a case of docudrama as moral entrapment. Director Robert Greene hires Kate Lyn Sheil to prepare to play Christine Chubbuck, a real-life newscaster in the '70s who shot herself in the head during a live broadcast and later died. But though it's made in documentary style by Greene (a documentarian), it's not strictly a documentary, because it documents the making of a film that was, in fact, never made. That nonexistent film serves as the MacGuffin for the whole enterprise. (Coincidentally, a biopic of Chubbuck called Christine was made the same year.)

Never heard of Christine Chubbuck? Nor have most people, and little of her or her work now remains. On the one hand, the film is a commentary on spectacle, death, and legacy in American culture, and on the other a record of Kate’s struggle to identify enough with Christine to portray her convincingly. Most of the running time is spent on Kate, Greene, and the crew (but mostly Kate) doing research, interviews, location scouting, and set rehearsals, interspersed with scenes of Kate dealing with personal matters, such as phone calls from Mom.

Unfortunately, once the premise and format are clearly grasped by the viewer, little of interest really happens. Sure, there’s the odd new observation or the unexpected source of information and acting insight, but the main draw of the film is the twofold allure of how the final reenactment will go and how deep Kate has to dive in order to do it convincingly.

The final scene, the actual reenactment, has a twist to it, one part of which is that Kate (seemingly?) loses her cool and calls Greene (and by implication the viewer) a sadist. Indeed, there seems to be no other reason to want to watch this film to the end. The enticement of a gory spectacle is what keeps us slogging through this two-hour circular meditation, so one can’t help but feel that the whole point of the exercise is to showcase Greene’s ability to manipulate viewers into self-disgust in spite of themselves. Ugh, no thanks.

Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, and Barry Keoghan in American Animals. (Photo: IMDB)

American Animals (2018), written and directed by Bart Layton, tells the story of four white college kids in Kentucky who, depressed by the fact that they aren’t as special as they were led to believe throughout their childhood, decide to make their lives special by stealing rare books from the Transylvania University library that total over ten million dollars in worth. The first third introduces us to the protagonists and follows the conception and planning of the heist; the middle third details the execution; and the last third presents the fallout  obviously, they were caught. Equally obvious, as critic Odie Henderson points out at RogerEbert.com, is the fact that, lacking justifiable motivation, sociopolitical import, the satisfaction of a comprehensive plan (as in Soderbergh films like the Ocean's series of Logan Lucky), or even a successful heist, the film boils down to a group of entitled young men who want a “transformative experience” but aren’t willing to earn it  to paraphrase librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd reads Gooch's words, but we see Gooch herself in an interview), who is tasered, bound, and gagged in the course of the heist. The documentary interviews (some of which feature actor stand-ins) and tricks-of-memory elements, where details in the recreations change mid-scene when the narrator changes, are interesting but mostly gimmicky, and the acting, not too shabby in the first two thirds, degenerates into lots and lots of shouting in the bottom third of the film. So we’re left with one burning question: why choose to tell this story?

Henderson is understandably upset that, of all the people who deserve to have their stories adapted into a film, the opportunity was given to these four douches: Warren Lipka (whom we see in interviews but we hear Evan Peters read his words in the style of a non-neurotic Jesse Eisenberg), Spencer Reinhard (a low-energy Barry Keoghan), Chas Allen (Armie Hammer-lite Blake Jenner), and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson). Henderson scoffs at the flimsy motivations the film attempts to supply for why they would do this, but quite apart from the fact that there wasn’t really a motive at all, the film is imperiously uninterested in motives, or even character. All we really know is that Spencer is unhappy, Warren is obsessively transgressive, Eric is implied to have been a frequent collaborator with Warren in the past and so is probably similar, and Chas is . . . well, we’re not quite sure why the rich, handsome, and successful Chas joins the team. Maybe he’s sick of being Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes?

The film tries very hard to get into the protagonists’ heads, especially those of Spencer and Warren, and the way they argue over how to “neutralize” the librarian shows how they want the fun and excitement without having to pay the price; when they do pay it, it haunts them to the point where they engage in punishment-seeking behavior. Having studied the issue for a while, I’m of the opinion that the root of most evil in the world is binary thinking. Right or wrong, us or them  lacking a mediating term, there’s no way to transcend opposition, which quickly turns into antagonism, and winning at all costs invokes the harms of instrumental rationality in treating others as only means, never ends. The same process is at work in American Animals: We’re not special; we need to become special; the librarian is preventing that; ergo, we have to put her out of commission. With a few moment’s reflection, they might’ve realized that being special isn’t the same as being different, and that it would in fact be quite a feat if they were meaningfully different from every single one of the other six billion people in the world (as of 2004, the year of the story). But they don’t stop to reflect, and no matter how reluctant they are, their binary mindset keeps them off the straight and narrow. It could happen to anyone stuck in a similarly binary mentality.

But exploding binaries comes with its own risks. Roger Ebert famously called cinema “a machine that generates empathy,” and the above question  why choose to tell this story?  can be rephrased as: why should we empathize with these people? From the perspective of Gooch, who was attacked, and Henderson, whose viewpoint represents conventional wisdom, there is not one legitimate reason for their actions, so they don’t deserve to be celebrated with a film. But the film isn’t celebrating them  it’s warning us. It deploys flashy tricks and humor to show us how easy it is to think as they did. After all the hypotheticals and self-rationalizations of the planning stage, Warren’s attack on Gooch, aided by Eric, symbolizes the roaring return of the real in Gooch’s piteous howls and emptied bladder. The sheer violence of the scene, effectively heightened with shaky yet coherent camerawork (Ole Bratt Birkeland is the cinematographer), is so tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film as to make one’s jaw drop, which is precisely the point. The film entices us to empathize with the leads so that it can hit us on the head with our own empathy. But that’s the thing about empathy: It literally doesn’t judge.

– CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog reviewfilmreview.wordpress.com, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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