• Colin Smith

    Rock On

    Trans Musician's Doc Debut

    Musician Rae Spoon and director Chelsea McMullan share their experience making the documentary "My Prairie Home."

    At Sundance Film Festival’s Music Café last Tuesday, musician Rae Spoon sings on stage, armed with a guitar and laptop. Beginning with acoustic folk ballads, Spoon’s set eventually moves to a more electronic indie-pop-rock sound reminiscent of groups like Metric and Tegan and Sara. To explain the palatable shift, Spoon jokingly prefaces one of their (being transgender, Spoon prefers using gender-neutral pronouns) more experimental songs: “I was really inspired by the folk music in Germany—which is techno.”
     
    Whatever the instrumental backing, Spoon’s music is driven by their stunning voice. Pure and poignant, it spins with ease into a higher register of breathtaking gossamer echoes. Spoon tells me later that they learned to sing as a child through church choir. Spoon’s discovery of their singing and songwriting abilities is a rare gift from their otherwise difficult Pentecostal upbringing in rural, conservative Alberta. 
     
    Chelsea McMullan is in the Music Café and bobbing her head to the music with the rest of the audience. A self-proclaimed “art kid in the suburbs,” she can relate to Spoon’s story of not fitting in at home. She has spent the past couple of years working with Spoon to turn their story into a documentary-musical film. Their work is now enjoying international recognition. Just the day before, the pair attended the United States premiere screening of their film My Prairie Home. Until Sundance, the film had only played in Canadian theaters. McMullan and Spoon had no idea that their project would receive such positive reception in their home country, let alone come to the States to compete in the World Cinema Documentary Competition of one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.  
     
    Directed by McMullan, the film captures Spoon’s life on the road as a transgender musician traveling across the Canadian prairies from bus stop to bus stop, stage to stage, motel to motel. Like Spoon, McMullan’s camera is usually on the move. Sweeping shots of the vast Canadian landscape—usually framed by the windows of a Greyhound bus—provide the rhythm of the film, evoking the feeling of transience that drives the film’s meditation on ideas of home and belonging. Much of the dialogue happens on a motel bed or bus seat. With arresting honesty, Spoon speaks about coming out as trans, their father’s mental illness, their younger brother’s death, and other parts of their troubled childhood. Always the backdrop, the prairies are sublime and also desolate—an ever-present reminder of the fraught symbiosis between self-reliance and loneliness, self-growth and self-doubt. 

    Form follows function in My Prairie Home. To tell the story of a subject that defies gender norms, McMullan has created a film that defies genre and expectations of typical filmmaking. McMullan says herself that she wanted to “make a film that pays tribute” to “Rae being subversive.” The beginning of the film is immediately iconic—a tranquil shot of the prairies that McMullan flipped such that the blue skies are on the bottom of the screen and the plains on the top. It is an appropriate introduction to the rest of the film, which uses everything from music videos to snippets of live shows to travelogue-like moments of reflection to capture the complex relationship between Spoon’s artistic and gender identity. 

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  • Victoria Will/Invision, via AP

    Anna All Over

    Sundance’s Queen Bee

    She parties like crazy with Lena Dunham in ‘Happy Christmas,’ and avoids a zombie uprising in ‘Life After Beth.’ How Anna Kendrick is winning Sundance ’14.

    Last year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival, the premier celebration of independent cinema, was all about the men. There was Michael B. Jordan’s heartrending turn as the wrongfully slain Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station; Miles Teller’s nuanced portrayal of a self-destructive class clown in The Spectacular Now; Sam Rockwell’s scene-stealing performance as a wacky water park operator in The Way, Way Back; and Daniel Radcliffe, who magically transformed into beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings.

    But this year is all about the ladies.

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  • A scene from "After Tiller." (Yes and No Productions)

    ‘After Tiller’

    Abortion’s Last Four Standing

    Marlow Stern talks with three doctors from ‘After Tiller’ about late-term abortions, and their fanatical foes.

    We’re 40 years after Roe v. Wade, and the women in America are in worse shape than they were 40 years ago. Their rights are being trampled in the street.

    These are the words of Dr. LeRoy Carhart. A former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Carhart is one of only four doctors in the entire country who publicly perform late-term abortions, loosely defined as those in the third trimester of pregnancy (25 weeks) and beyond.

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  • Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning pose for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23, 2013 in Park City, Utah. (Jeff Vespa/WireImage)

    ‘VERY GOOD GIRLS’

    Sundance’s It Girls

    Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen talk to Marlow Stern about ‘Very Good Girls’—and Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy.’

    Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen are no strangers to Sundance.

    Fanning was the talk of the fest back in 2007, when her film Hounddog, which contained a rape scene featuring the then-12-year-old actress, premiered. She returned in 2010, starring as Cherie Currie in the underrated rock biopic The Runaways. Olsen, meanwhile, burst onto the scene in 2011, starring in Martha Marcy May Marlene, earning numerous critical accolades for playing a young woman indoctrinated into a cult, and the horror flick Silent House.

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