Our Unspoken Suicide Culture

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I’m usually out of the loop when it comes to current movies. Being someone who regularly watches vintage horror, forgotten documentaries, French New Wave, and classic Film Noir, I think it would be safe to say that I generally have no idea what’s going on in the world of film. Suffice it to say, hidden gems sort of slip by. Once in a while I stumble upon a masterpiece that impacts me profoundly. I had such a viewing experience tonight. One that left such an impact I felt the need to write about it, as it relates to a growing epidemic not only in the United States, but Western culture as a whole.

The film in question is a 2016 release titled Christine. No, not the ’80s film adaptation of the Stephen King novel. It’s based on the life, and televised suicide, of twenty-nine year old reporter Christine Chubbuck. Directed by Antonio Campos, and starring Rebecca Hall as Christine. The film is a heartbreaking, and sobering look at the final days of a very troubled woman’s downward spiral. Stuck in a dead end job, and working for a small local TV station in Sarasota, Florida, constantly at odds with her very sexist (really) and domineering boss. Repeatedly backed into corners where she must choose between her own integrity and “juicy” stories. As her boss repeats the mantra “If it bleeds, it leads!”

Ms. Chubbuck lived and died before my time. Two years before my time to be precise. Yet, one can’t help to see the parallels to life now some fourty years later. Now you have to consider 1974 for a second. A time of vinyl records, reel-to-reel tape, and grainy, fuzzy pictures that traveled over the airwaves. The camera was not omnipresent as it is today. A journalist had to fight for a story, lose sleep getting that story, then manually edit footage in a cutting room. Journalism was a labor of love that required an almost fanatic dedication.

Christine chubbuck

I found it quite difficult to watch at times. To see an idealistic young liberal (in the classic sense) constantly forced to trade her own ideals, morals and convictions in the name of ratings. “If it bleeds, it leads!” Only then to be skipped over, and disregarded, while the hacks surrounding her went on to be praised and promoted. Add that to her growing health problems, and very blatant, undiagnosed mental illness. By the end of the film, one can almost applaud her for hanging on, and fighting for so long.

In 1974, Ms. Chubbuck’s death on the air shook the nation to it’s core. In a time before Twitter, or even the internet. By that evening, the entire nation knew her name. Fast forward to the era we now live in. Suicide rates are so high, that I didn’t even bother to look at stats. Call it lazy journalism, call it what you will. Those are numbers that I can’t bring myself to look at tonight. I’ve been affected by suicide. More times than I wish to count. Now I could say something cliché, I could post a link to the National Suicide Hotline, but I think I’d be overlooking some very significant points.

In Western culture, suicide is now so common that, in many countries self harm is the leading cause of death. Surpassing AIDS, heart disease, cancer, and auto accidents. Add our morbid fascination of watching people die on film, and our absolute desensitization to death. One has to wonder what impact Ms. Chubbuck’s death would actually have in 2018. I have to wonder how long it would take for heartless memes to flood Facebook mocking her. Hey, “If it bleeds, it leads,” right?

In an era where we often hear the term “fake news” thrown about, her story made quite an impact. She saw the self destructive path that journalism was travelling. I would almost call her a visionary. Fast forward to 2018, and you have soulless teenagers making videos of suicides, and posting it to Youtube. Yes, I’m referring to the disgusting lack of humanity showcased by Youtube celebrity Logan Paul, in Japan’s notorious Aokigahara Forest.

And, as much as I would love to sit here and condemn Mr. Paul, (well deserved) I don’t think that would really get to the root of the problem. Suicide has not only become a cultural norm, the absolute lack of humanity portrayed by other human beings has become commonplace. I remember seeing a dead body on the side of the road back in 2005. A drug overdose. Wrapped in a sheet and discarded on the side of the highway late at night. I had nightmares for days, and it took me a while to laugh again. I wasn’t shocked, or “changed,” but I was sad. Sad that at the end of someone’s life, their worth had come down to a clean sheet, and an easy access point for the cops to retrieve them. I think today, a situation like that would be capitalized upon for views.

The footage of Ms. Chubbuck’s death no longer exists. I’ve not gone looking for it, nor will I. But to my knowledge, it was destroyed in the studio. As it should have been. Upon doing research, I did find many, many still photos of her. She was a stunning woman, with dark raven hair and penetrating eyes. One can imagine a vivid and complex persona. And yet in later photos, you can see a deep conflict in her eyes. A slow burning grief. The type of grief that can, and many times does indeed, consume the human soul.

I have to say, this is an important film. Deeply haunting, and at times downright difficult to watch. But it’s a rarity when a film maker has the courage to portray mental illness honestly. All aspects of it. It’s randomness, it’s volitility, it’s ugliness. And the path of destruction it leaves in it’s wake. I don’t condone suicide. Yet I won’t condemn Ms. Chubbuck. I think we’ve all at one time or another been near our breaking point.

But that’s not my point. She saw not only the path that journalism was taking. She saw a future where Americans would be entertained by sensationalized tragedy, in the name of ratings, “If it bleeds, it leads!”
My God, how right she was. While writing this, I found myself looking at the same still shot over and over again. Moments before her death. Her dark blue blouse, her beautiful long hair, her stunning eyes. And her last words to a world that she had obviously grown to despise.

“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 – an attempted suicide.”

And as I stare at her photo, I have to accept how right she was about us, and the direction we were heading. And I have to accept how far we have fallen, not only as a once sympathetic, and compassionate people, but as human beings in general.

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