Monday, 12 September 2016

CHRISTINE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - Days of madness, despair, empowerment

Rebecca Hall as reporter Christine Chubbuck

Christine (2016)
Dir. Antonio Campos
Scr. Craig Shilowich
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts,
Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, John Cullum, Timothy Simons

Review By Greg Klymkiw
You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again

- John Denver, "Annie's Song"
There's a scene in Christine where the film's title character (Rebecca Hall), a TV news reporter, drives down the highway singing along joyously to John Denver's "Annie's Song" on her car radio. In any other movie it could have been one of those moments of fake transcendence. After all, Christine's latest political human interest item has just successfully aired and she's on her way to deliver a puppet show to a roomful of handicapped kids. (I know, this already sounds sickening, but trust me, it isn't.)

As she launches into her happy croon-along, it is a strangely transcendent moment, but as she passes a car in the next lane, she stops. We all do (and would). Who doesn't fear being caught singing in the car, even if it's by complete strangers? However, in this case, when the car moves ahead she begins singing again, but the gusto and magic seem shattered. Even now, we see something, thanks to Hall's pitch-perfect performance - something that's just not, right - something tremulous and foreboding.

Director Campos also doesn't let the sing-along soar the way most loser directors would. He cuts the scene (beautifully) short, just before Christine can sing: "You fill up my senses, Come fill me again." We are spared far more than Denver's lyrics, we are saved by knowing that we're definitely in the territory of a great film. And yes, as this haunting, harrowing portrait of mental illness progresses, we do indeed wonder who or what will fill up Christine's senses, and most importantly, "fill [her] again."

Christine is a great film. In spite of the annoying opening credit that tells us it's a true story, try to suppress that fact if you don't already know the story of the WXLT-TV news reporter in Sarasota, Florida who practised her craft during the early-to-mid-70s and was acclaimed for her commitment to a variety of social and environmental issues.

You fill up my senses, like a light in the forest.

Once the film was over on my first helping, Christine Chubbuck's story came flooding back to my memory banks, but up until that point, I was cascaded along by this beautifully crafted picture that plunged me into a world of television news dominated by male voices. Against the backdrop of Watergate/Vietnam we follow the life of a woman struggling to maintain voice and authority professionally, while personally being crushed with numbing mental illness.

For me, the ultimate test of a film's greatness is how it resonates upon multiple viewings. After the first screening I was compelled to see it twice more on a big screen and (to date) three more times in the privacy of my home theatre. Not only does the movie continue to yield considerable complexity, but it never fails to dazzle on an aesthetic level and, perhaps most importantly, it sustains the ability to render emotional wallops that inspire shudders, tears and deep reflection.

The meticulous detail with which screenwriter Craig Shilowich captures the ins-and-outs of a TV newsroom (not to mention the period detail) is a thing of beauty. He expertly juggles several balls in the air by charting the trajectory/descent of the late-20-something Christine and never allowing us to feel like anything, structurally or otherwise, is familiar or by rote. At the same time, the writing is clear and unfettered by the kind of indie-cool (or worse, sitcom emptiness disguised as Hecht/MacArthur) that might have veered into style over substance.

Director Campos demonstrates the kind of control and careful virtuosity needed to navigate the waters of Christine's journey as she looks for love, wends through a complex relationship with her mother (with whom she lives), tries to maintain her journalistic principals, generate work that matters, secure a position in a larger TV market and, as if this wan't enough, deal with both psychological and physical maladies.

The events of the film take place in 1974, but sadly, now 40+ years later, we live in a world where mental illness is loaded with stigma and the resources, both public and private, still seem woefully inadequate. Within this context, Christine proves to deliver resonance and importance that so few films manage to achieve. Its properties feel universal.

Reporter and News Director - Battle Lines Drawn

The lovely thing about the movie is that the darkness of the tale doesn't overshadow the many moments of magic, humour and, at times, sheer elation in the life of the title character. One of the more engaging elements of the story is the cat-and-dog antics between Christine and her news director boss Michael (played irascibly and compellingly by the magnificent playwright Tracy Letts).

During a team meeting of the news department, Michael laments the poor ratings and insists that there must be far more emphasis upon sensationalism.

"If it bleeds, it leads," he declares.

Christine won't take any of this guy's shit. She dismisses him with a zinger that hits him like a ton of bricks: "That's just some catchphrase you picked up at a conference in Cleveland last month," she quips. The truth hurts. He knows it and she knows it. The script delivers a cornucopia of gorgeously written jousts between the two of them, but never are they on the level of the kind of fakery churned out by James L. Brooks in the ludicrously overrated Broadcast News. Shilowich delivers one gorgeous Charles Lederer/Clifford Odets-like acid-toss in the face after another, but never at the expense of truth (unlike the nonsense crapped out by the likes of the aforementioned Brooks).

Truth, however, is ultimately what Christine is all about.

It's a terrible truth and that's what makes it so vital.


Christine is a TIFF 2016 Special Presentation and released by The Orchard.