Essays: Alex Ross Perry on “Kate Plays Christine”

The director of Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth considers the Sundance prize-winning documentary Kate Plays Christine from filmmaker Robert Greene, a friend of Perry’s, as well as editor of his films.


Robert has made his life an extension of the work, a fitting circumstance considering the extent to which his recent films grease up the fuzzy lines between reality and filmmaking. It is rather difficult to describe to people who the editor of my films is. He is a documentary filmmaker, with the catch that people actually see and like his movies, not a documentary filmmaker in quotation marks; an author of articles, essays about non-fiction cinema that are as much about his own ideas as they are about the films under discussion; a professor and advocate for a specific type of artistic advocacy in the world of non-fiction, which often means he is speaking at a production lab or participating in film festivals whether he has a movie there or not.

He’s also a practitioner of a particular philosophy of filmmaking that I have been lucky enough to benefit from in our three collaborations, and which plays out to the extreme when watching Kate Plays Christine, Robert’s latest non-fiction-mission-statement-as-cinema-as-life-as-entertainment. As an editor, Robert doesn’t consider notes from others unless he can decipher the hidden codes and unspoken meaning of what they are trying to say. If a scene is described as superfluous and he loves it, the task is about finding the one sour note which, when removed, makes the scene essential.

Kate Plays Christine exhibits this tendency in spades. It is clearly a movie edited by it’s own director, but also a movie that nobody else could have made any sense of. Robert’s pursuit of short-term non-fiction experiences leads to a contained volume footage: shoots go on for days or weeks instead of months or years. His heroes Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles wouldn’t have become prolific without similar discipline. When it works, what this methodology does is telegraph to the viewer that the director briefly went with cameras for a reason, got in, got out, and went to make sense of it all in the edit. Already, it all gets closer to the parameters of a fiction shoot. He’s having it both ways. It’s what I recently heard Herzog, discussing the adjustments and falsities he inserts into his own documentaries, as ‘enhancement of a deeper truth.’

Robert’s theorizing and philosophy of cinema consistently adds up to work that is at once minutely considered and graceful, turning his films (and those he works on) into further proof that he is onto something with his ideas and principals, and that all that time he spends talking, writing, lecturing about them is genuine practice for the increasingly infrequent occasions when he stops proselytizing and actually sits down to work. Robert is known to respond to a note about something as seemingly simple as trimming a shot by firing back, ‘You don’t understand, that’s not the point of that cut.’ If an editor or filmmaker doesn’t think this much about their own work in theoretical terms that simultaneously dovetail into what is best for the macro wavelength of the film, I wouldn’t trust them.