Review: 'My Prairie Home' introduces viewers to Rae Spoon
Chelsea McMullan's Sundance doc defies expectations as does its subject
"Gender" and "genre" share a common root in the Latin "genus." It means "kind" or "type" or "sort" and that's how both gender and genre function. They allow us to classify things. They give us categories into which we believe it's easy and beneficial to slot plants, animals, people, literary forms. Gender and genre are systems through which we think we've made it simpler to view the world.
Of course, very few classification systems work all the time.
The slippery slope at the intersection of gender and genre is at the center of Chelsea McMullan's "My Prairie Home," which is premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in the World Documentary Competition.
I suppose that intro probably makes "My Prairie Home" sound more academically challenging than it is. "My Prairie Home" is also a small, poetic, quirky portrait of a very fine artist, a singer-songwriter who happens to be difficult to fit in any traditional boxes, as a person or as a musician.
More after the break...
If you're like me, you may not have heard of Canadian performer Rae Spoon and, if you're like me, you may find yourself wandering to iTunes after seeing "My Prairie Home" to download one of Spoon's albums. There are a lot of them, filled with funny, aching, confessional, melodic songs. They're kinda folk, kinda country, kinda electronica and a little bit indie rock, but sometimes things just don't fit easily into genres.
That, of course, brings us to the trickiness of explaining Rae Spoon, writing about Rae Spoon and making a film about Rae Spoon, a trickiness that even flows into Rae Spoon's self-delivered narrative. It goes a little something like this: Rae Spoon was born a woman and she thought she was a lesbian, until she escaped the bubble of Calgary and his eyes were opened to the possibilities of gender and sexual expression and, for a decade, he lived as a trans man. But that identification is also a thing of the past. In "My Prairie Home," Rae praises the pronoun "they" for allowing people to know that it shouldn't be necessary to force or mandate a him/her or male/female classification. "They" also seems to contain multitudes and not be limited by number or singularity either, which also makes it appropriate to Rae Spoon.
I'm sure that paragraph was very ignorantly worded, but I'm also sure it's not the most ignorant wording Spoon has read over the years. And it's not that it's so easy for them [the Rae Sppn "them"] to describe either. Landing on "they" as a pronoun comes with the baggage of both a compromise and a surrender as if to say, "Here's a way that maybe doesn't capture the totality of me, but at least it captures and respects the difference of me and people like me." I'm down with that.
The fact is that even if Spoon hadn't spent their life wrestling with pronouns, their upbringing already would have offered ample complication. They were raised in an evangelical Pentecostal family with a father who was simultaneously a community pillar and battling mental health issues that contributed to abuse. It's a background that they embrace, but also are clearly constantly fleeing from.
McMullan describes her film as "a documentary-musical" and "My Prairie Home" straddles and defies boundaries right along with its subject. It's a musical, but it's just as much a performative biopic, a staged monologue in the Spalding Gray vein, a concert film and free-flowing travelogue that could practically have been paid for by the Canadian Board of Tourism.
"My Prairie Home" begins, fittingly enough, with an upside down frame. The mostly prairie is just a strip at the top, the blue sky layering most of the bottom of the frame. As we move along, the occasional upside down building passes by. It's a quick, clever way of immediately establishing a perspective that's outside-of-the-norm.
The film moves directly to Rae sitting at a restaurant counter, guitar at their side. Even seen from behind, their black-rimmed glasses and haircut are distinctive. Spoon stands up and begins performing one of their songs walking through the restaurant. They walk by the locals, who mostly ignore or look away, they certainly don't engage. Spoon pauses at an intersection of two gendered bathrooms, contemplates their options and turns away, completing a circuit, the song and returns to breakfast.
In very little time, "My Prairie Home" establishes many of its concerns and focuses.
The movie spends much of its time on the road, but it's a different version of Canada, one that ranges from big cities like Winnipeg and, kinda, Regina, to whatever rural outposts happen to stretch between them. "My prairie home fits like a Sunday dress," Spoon sings and there's a whole side of the documentary that's about that statement and the question of how this region and this geography both matches and is at odds with Spoon's own mix of urbanity and understated deadpan. MacMullan his content to let minutes go by with nothing but passing scenery, punctuated only by Spoon's head, bobbing into and out of the frame from their window seat. It's like you're watching the region go through their mind and vice versa.
That's what "My Prairie Home" does best. The diner performance is one of many increasingly outlandish videos that range from portrayed autobiography to increasing surrealism. One moment you're watching Spoon at a small venue telling the story of their high school girlfriend and the next you're watching the singer reliving their high school prom, presumably seen through a John Hughes-style '80s filter. One minute Spoon is lamenting their father's fleeting appearance at the back of a concert hall, and the next minute they're in the woods singing "Love Is a Hunter" and dancing with British-style hunters in deer heads. Another video, set in amongst the dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, illustrates Spoon's interest in dinosaurs as being neither Biblical nor secular creatures, but again finds lots of humor in the exploration.
I wouldn't describe Rae Spoon as being an energetic tourguide through their mind, but they are a great storyteller, in an amusingly laconic style, responding to the world with simultaneously bemusement and a caution honed through many unpleasant past experiences. A lot of the documentary is about Spoon's status as an individual and the enjoyment of solitary travel, but the on-camera interactions with their brother and with the aforementioned high school girlfriend add welcome minor variation to the tone.
And the variations in tone are, indeed, only very minor. McMullan has made an glimpse into the mind of a complicated artist that is at once effective, but at times it reads a bit simply and quietly. I think that the 77-minute running time of "My Prairie Home" is probably appropriate to McMullan's stylistic approach, but there were definitely moments I felt the stylistic approach was limiting in a way that Rae Spoon maybe isn't limited as an artist or as a subject. The music videos that seemed fresh and interesting at the very beginning, maybe seemed a little superficial and glossy by the middle at the end, especially when they don't especially amplify the more profound moment's from Spoon's life, like the devastating conflation of a sibling's death and the Calgary Olympics through a child's memory.
Then again, at 77 minutes, "My Prairie Home" doesn't overstay its welcome and doesn't strain for profundity. It just happens to be a length that was simultaneously easily satisfying and left me yearning for just a bit more. That's not a bad position to be in when it comes to a Sundance documentary. That's enough time to discovers Rae Spoon's music, get a feel for their personality and feel like I'd like to hear some more. Not bad at all.