' ' Cinema Romantico: Tangerine

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


A film shot principally on an iPhone, as the deliriously energetic “Tangerine” was, sounds from a distance like a grand gimmick, a product-based means to drum up off screen conversation or to allow a first-time or less-than-experienced filmmaker an inexpensive means to make like a latter day Robert Rodriguez and turn his 3.95 ounces of stainless steel into a hipster’s substitute for Ultra Panavision. It probably goes without saying, however, to any open-minded cineaste, or otherwise, that “Tangerine” is no gimmick, but a full-blooded motion picture that just happened to be recorded through a smartphone anamorphic lens adapter. Anyone who caught Sean Baker’s previous feature film, the astonishing “Starlet”, would know full well that he and cinematographic ally Radium Cheung have a keen eye for classical frames that illuminate Los Angeles as a place of alternating regularity and transcendence. That film brought a sumptuous dose of levity and warmth to the adult entertainment industry much like how “Tangerine” casts a welcome spotlight on a particular subset of culture standing outside the mainstream.

That subset involves a pair of transgender prostitutes, Alex and Sin-Dee, each of whom is played by a first-time actor – respectively, Mya Taylor and Kiki Kitana-Rodriguez, whose energy inundates the screen, Movie Stars by charisma. Sin-Dee has just been released from a quick stint in jail and is now on the prowl for a “fish” – that is, the woman, Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) who has been sleeping with her pimp and/or boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) – while Alex chaotically bides her time for a singing showcase at a local club that night. The opening scenes laying out all this information are jam-packed with quick cuts, swirling music and yelling, so much yelling, and the film simply drops us into this world, expecting us to catch up on the fly because these aren’t the kinds of characters that will stop what they’re doing and where they’re going to explain things. You’re in their world now.

The hustle and bustle is underscored by the guerrilla filmmaking. In this way, the iPhone is exceptionally apropos to the story, one that is often confined to the street, and moves right along with them, down sidewalks, across streets and into cars. Always there is life pulsating in the background, people going about their day, reminding us that Alex and Sin-Dee are just a couple people in a humongous city with a myriad of unfolding stories and that their story is as consequential as the story of anyone else.

A parallel narrative emerges in the form of Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a cab driver. Between fares, he scours the streets for prostitutes. In particular, he has an eye for Alex; he also has a wife and child at home. He can’t bring himself to admit who he really is or what he really wants, merely masquerading as a patriarch, dooming his wife and child to a life of emptiness, the same kind that he unsuccessfully seeks to quell with his addiction. Even the makeshift brothel that Sin-Dee invades in order to catch the “fish” and drag her outside by the hair is filled with people more readily in touch with themselves and their plights than Razmik.

“Tangerine” is set over the course of December 24th, a time of togetherness, and in its own manic, delightful, comically caustic way, Baker’s film is all about the family dynamic. Not just Razmik’s threatening to be torn apart, but this bickering congregation of streetwalkers and their clients and pimps for whom Los Angeles locale Donut Town becomes the stage of a kind of screwball-styled Christmas Eve Mass, a hyperactive sequence bringing all the main players onto the same stage so they can hash out their various feelings as everyone argues and spills out into the night.

The film's conclusion, however, stretches beyond humor and becomes something genuinely humanistic, though without the desperation of a more wannabe high-minded film desperate to “say something”. And even if it turns on Alex and Sin-Dee being targeted, briefly, for transgender hate, the film does not make this act of hate the overriding point. Instead it is the impetus to a tender moment of intrinsic goodwill, evoking the film's entire viewpoint of its characters, one refraining from either martyrization or passing judgment. It’s an idea indelibly captured in an earlier shot, improbably set inside a nightclub bathroom, colored like it’s an acid trap at rave, fueled at least in part by a hit of crack, yet utterly imbued with an eclectic if radiant spirituality in which Sin-Dee momentarily quiets as she applies lipstick to Dinah. As it happens, I could hardly believe the tears welling up in my eyes, but there they were nonetheless.

It’s trendy these days to accuse iPhones of negating reality; that we can’t see actually see life happening because we’re too busy recording it, watching it through this little screen what’s actually happening right in front of us. Soul-sucking, you might say. These arguments probably contain some truth, sure, but “Tangerine” looks at these people through its iPhone and sees them. It sees their souls. It seems them for exactly who they are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've heard nothing but intriguing things about this one. Color me...intrigued!