Live From the Studio: Mental Health in ‘Christine’

A close up on Christine through the TV screen in a washed out sepia. She looks directly into the camera with a morose expression.
The Orchard

Content Warning: Suicide.

Christine Chubbuck sits in the studio, framed by a single camera. She’s poised and serious, a bastion of early seventies professionalism and style, accentuated by her perfectly straight brown hair – only the air quality of 1974 would let hair be that long and that glossy. She’s interviewing Richard Nixon, an augur of the forthcoming Frost/Nixon interviews. Only, well, she isn’t. The camera pans back. Christine is sitting alone, interviewing a ghost.

Film often gets mental illness terribly wrong. The depictions of what it is like to live with depression or personality disorders, for instance, are often sanitised or embellished, operating pursuant to the vagaries of the narrative rather than the actuality of the condition. Like Nixon, that actuality is a ghost. An invisible spectre no one believes is there. It’s terrifying and so singular in its haunt. No one believes it is real. It’s mythic and fragmented. Simply will it away and the haunt will be gone.   

Christine, Antonio Campos’s 2016 biopic of real life WXLT-TV broadcaster Christine Chubbuck, miraculously gets mental illness right. It believes in the ghost. It lives in tight, cloistered quarters with the ghost. It examines how the once innocuous presence grows into something considerably more insidious on the periphery. It believes the ghosts of the human mind are real.

Starring Rebecca Hall in a brilliant performance – one that is simultaneously unpalatable and heartrendingly sympathetic – the movie follows the days leading up to Christine Chubbuck’s infamous, almost parabolic, death by suicide live on air in 1974. Campos, and Hall by extension, avoid the exploitation the narrative is ripe for, instead focusing intimately on Chubbuck herself and her ongoing battle with (speculatively) both depression and borderline personality disorder. Little is known about the real Christine – most of it is simply a tapestry of contemporaneous accounts of her health and disposition – and luckily, footage of her death has been lost in the annals of television history, the existence of which has been rendered something of a sick campfire tale.

Christine stands up to her boss at the network. She stands in front of his desk, hunched over and small but resolute. Her boss leans over the desk with an intimidating demeanour, stabbing a finger into the table.
The Orchard

Christine’s closest allies, her workplace, and even the culture writ large were incompatible with her illness, a collective suppression that ultimately led to her death. More specifically, gender, workplace politics, and an aggregate disregard for mental health contributed to her tragic death on July 15th, 1974. There was no one particular thing, certainly­ – in the film, and confirmed by accounts at the time, every person who knew her attributed her death to different factors – but taken together, they were pernicious.

Where the movie falters – perhaps its only solecism of tact – is its emphasis on certain avenues of Christine’s depression. When her mother, Pegs (J. Smith Cameron) announces she’s met someone, Christine looks sullen, lamenting that it sounds less like an announcement and more like “gloating” with the tone and tenor of a child. Christine was a virgin at the time of her death, and her family thoroughly attributes her depression to her poor dating and romantic life, likely compounded by the removal of an ovary that, in a few years’ time, would have left her unable to conceive. It’s certainly understandable for her family, in the midst of profound grief, to look for easy answers, but Christine the movie has decades of progress and time on its side – it should know better than to unilaterally attribute death by suicide to one single variable. Luckily, the movie is reparatory enough in adjacent sections to render it misguided, not veritably problematic, at worst.

Christine’s oddities, for instance – the language of the time, not my own – are so specific and singular, so very belonging to her, they become part and parcel of the audience. Christine stops singing John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” in her car when another one passes by, fearful (unlikely as it is) that the other driver might see her. After a performance at the children’s hospital, Christine asks the nurse about her stomach cramps, to which she incredulously replies, “Honey, I’m a paediatric nurse.” After a fight with her mother, Christine regresses into adolescence, apologising not unlike a child who had just been scolded. Her room, too, is a time capsule of her early years. Pastels and florals, with band posters of cute boys and heartthrobs taped to the wall so they might watch over her while she sleeps.

Parts of it feel so very dated – so unique to Christine herself and the era in which she lived and worked – but as much as we collectively like to think our current culture is more amenable to struggles with mental health and access to appropriate care, there’s a growing chasm between our ideal and our reality. There are currently not enough trained professionals to treat everyone who needs care, and for anyone lucky enough to have coverage, the labyrinthine process of finding an in-network provider is an enervating process. There are sliding scales, exorbitant out-of-pocket costs, and care deserts where patients inordinately outnumber caregivers. The on-going pandemic has rendered almost everyone’s mental health – whether they’re a remote or essential worker – worse, and there is seemingly no conceivable end in sight. The ghost, even 47 years later, is still haunting the house.

Christine sits in a dressing room, staring at her own reflection as she sits in front of the mirror. She wears all black, contrasting with the pale room around her.
The Orchard

On days where someone feels completely helpless – like the whole world is against them – the infrastructure of our mental healthcare system arguably makes things that much worse. When Christine screams at Peg, “My life is a cesspool… these people are ruining me,” it’s a poignant and frightening refrain rooted in fact. It’s a refrain rooted in life.  

The movie ends, then, after two hours of pain and heartache, at the only place it really ever could. In the days leading up to her death, Christine is meticulous. She asks her station manager for the opportunity to report from the desk – a first for her – and graciously asks her cameraman to record copies of her inaugural “live from the desk” reel. She purchases a firearm, says her subtle goodbyes, and sits down for her report. On-camera, Christine recites the following, copied verbatim for the movie: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’ and in living colour, you are going to see another first – an attempted suicide.” Christine then pulls a firearm from her purse and shoots herself behind her right ear. Time freezes, everyone stands shocked, unsure if what they’ve seen is real before the station cuts to black. Christine Chubbuck is pronounced dead fourteen hours later.

In the movie, Christine’s suicide is filmed from a distance, clear enough to convey what happened, but distant and nebulous enough to avoid exploitation, or something much worse. As the movie ends, Jean (Maria Dizzia) returns home, opens a pint of ice-cream, and watches The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Tyler Moore was going to make it after all. Christine Chubbuck was not.

Christine breaks my heart. Rebecca Hall’s performance is so vivid, so fully lived-in, that I can’t help but return to my own battles with depression and ideation when I watch or even simply think of the movie. It’s one of cinema’s most well-conceived explorations of depression and mental illness, and as difficult a watch as it can be, there’s something curative hidden beneath the dated veneer and Dave Loggins soundtrack. Contemporary research has contended that media portrayals of death by suicide, and those adjacent stories, while having innate risk-factors – chief among them subsequent suicidality – can yield positive net benefits. They can inspire positive impacts on suicide aware, mental health literacy, and future help-seeking behaviours. While we wait for the culture and infrastructure to change, stories are an egress of hope and healing. Maybe we can make it after all.

by Chad Collins

Chad Collins graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2019 with his Master of Arts. He works in behavioural health and teaches online. He has been a horror fan since birth and his favourites include: ScreamHalloweenAlien, and tawdry ‘80s slasher films. Find him on Twitter @ChadIsCollins.

2 replies »

  1. Hi Chad, I’m so glad your essay here helps bring attention to this film. I staged an art installation last year that embodied some of the ways film and tv depict mental illness, particularly depression-based illness, and part of it involved me writing a few lines from this beautiful poem about Christine: http://wandererpoetry.com/lesbehonest-joshua-jennifer-espinoza/ (it’s the third poem down on the page). I wrote the “I choose life and I will suffer / and I will make my pain visible / as my form of protest” on a whiteboard. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this essay and unpack so many of the interesting choices Campos & co. made to depict Christine’s story. I also appreciate how much research you link out to!

    Like

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