It's been a while since I've been as conflicted about a film as I am about Tangerine (2015, directed by Sean Baker). It's a film that pulses with cinematic invention. Famously filmed on iPhones, it's a film that pushes at the edges of the ever-advancing boundaries of what low-budget filmmakers can do. In spite of its formal qualities, though, it's a film that gets snarled in the politics of representation. True, its various trans characters are played by actual trans people, and it forgoes that laziest of trans storylines, the process of transition. But troublesome representations remain.
Tangerine has a three-part narrative whose strands twine and unravel and twine again over a long Los Angeles Christmas Eve. Its central narrative finds Sin-Dee, a trans woman just out of a thirty day prison stay, celebrating her release with her best friend, Alexandra. She has big news for Alexandra, who guesses that Sin-Dee is finally breaking up with Chester, her douchebag boyfriend/pimp, because he's been cheating on her with a "fish," (I. E. a cisgender woman). Enraged, Sin-Dee storms out of the donut shop and goes on a rage-quest to find the woman who wrecked her relationship with the man she was getting ready to marry. Meanwhile, Alexandra has her own storyline, revolving around her performance at a local bar later that night. As she trails Sin-Dee's path of destruction, she optimistically hands out fliers to everyone she meets, inviting them to her performance. One of the locals she encounters is Razmik, an Armenian cab driver who has a taste for transgender sex workers. Such is his predilection that when he mistakenly picks up a cisgender sex worker, he's disgusted enough to throw her out of his cab. Razmik has a family to support and a family gathering for Christmas. He's had a bad day: drunks for fares, no luck feeding his sexual urges, and to top things off, he becomes trapped at home under the watchful eye of his mother-in-law when what he wants to do is go see Alexandra sing. Sin-Dee, meanwhile, tracks down her rival in a crack den and drags her by the hair through the neighborhood to find Chester. The two form an uneasy relationship based on mutual contempt over a pipe. These strands of narrative all converge back at the donut shop, where everyone vents their spleen...
Tangerine is very much a film of its specific moment in time. Last year, Time Magazine its own staid, conservative self put Laverne Cox on its cover and announced to the world that we are at the "Transgender Tipping Point." Trans people have never had the kind of media profile that they've had this year, between Cox and her role on Orange is the New Black, Amazon's TransParent series, Caitlin Jenner's coming out, and the Wachowski's Sense8 series on Netflix in which a trans character created by a trans writer/director is played by a trans actress and not defined throughout by her transness. It's enough to wash away the sour taste provided by Jared Leto's Oscar for Dallas Buyer's Club. Almost. A couple of days before I saw Tangerine, I had a conversation with the programmer at my local art house about Tangerine in which I was willing to bet money that it would be better than The Danish Girl, a forthcoming biopic of Lili Elbe in which Eddie Redmayne will play trans. That film looks like prestige-season award bait, which suggests that even in the current zeitgeist, big Hollywood has learned nothing.
Tangerine, fortunately, is pretty good. It certainly isn't pandering to a cisgender audience in its choice of characters or cultural milieus, set as it is among the sex workers and drug addicts of Hollywood. It's a film that has a certain cache of authenticity, too, given that its two main actresses are playing women very much like themselves. It's unrepentant about the comedy it finds in their situations. Another film from sometime in the past might have turned the same material tragic or found its three main characters pathetic. Like many another filmmaker in micro-budget indieland, director Sean Baker has mostly peopled his film with non-actors, asking them to bring their experiences to their characters in a way that would elude a trained actor working solely off of the script. Baker is a white dude, after all. He doesn't have the experience. It's significant that the only significant white dude character, Chester, is played by professional actor James Ransone. He's smart enough to give all of these characters a droll, non-judgmental matter-of-factness and authenticity that turns their lives into comedies rather than something else. This impulse is neo-realist, though the form of the film is anything but.
The conceit of shooting this film on an iPhone 5 with an anamorphic lens attachment and an $8 app might seem like a gimmick, but it's not, really. The picture quality here is head and shoulders better than the early days of digital--anything from the Dogme filmmakers, for instance--and Baker uses the mobility of his camera to create an immersive, first person shooter look to the film that suits the picaresque of his narrative. The image is often highly stylized, an effect amplified by the way Baker has edited his film. This is is as formally daring a film as I've seen all year. The scene where Razmik has a dalliance with Alexandra in a car wash, for instance, combines the weirdly surreal image of the machineries of the car wash, its sound, with a cross cut of Sin-dee's story over which that sound is imposed. It's a startling scene. Baker's use of a wall-of-sound soundtrack that veers from hip-hop to classical enriches the film's sunlit urban desolation. Tangerine's visual and sonic textures give it a singular identity. In spite of this, it's not perfect. Even at a relatively brisk 88 minute run-time, parts of Tangerine feel padded, and the bonding between Sin-Dee and Dinah over a crack pipe seems almost too pat for my tastes, and the big confrontation in the third act when Sin-Dee, Dinah, Alexandra, Chester, Razmik and his mother-in-law converge seems almost manufactured. The mechanisms of plot show through here a bit. And that doesn't even take into account the politics of its representations.
At the risk of tripping myself over my own privilege, I really wish this film wasn't about sex workers. It kind of sours me on the whole enterprise, because when was the last time you saw a black trans woman in a film who wasn't a sex worker? In truth, I can't think of a single example off the top of my head, and it bothers me.* More, it bothers me a lot that there is a real-world consequence to the monopoly of this kind of imagery. Google the case of Monica Jones, if you want an example of a pernicious consequence: images fucking matter. I hope that this isn't a case where I'm advocating for respectability politics, because it's not necessarily the idea of movie characters being portrayed as sex workers that bothers me per se, so much as it's that every movie character of this particular identity is portrayed this way. There's a racist dimension to this, too, given that white trans women are not exclusively portrayed as sex workers. The middle-aged transitioner is much more common. The fact that the trans sex worker is second only to the trans serial killer as a cinematic profession is shameful.
Still, this is the movie I have, and for what it offers, it's good enough. I like both Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Alexandra and Sin-Dee, respectively, and I like the very end of the film, in which the spectre of violence toward them finally appears. The very last scene, in which Alexandra offers Sin-Dee her hair is unexpected and moving. There's a hint here of, I dunno, indomitability, maybe. These two will carry on. Maybe the world will be kind to them eventually.
*I say this knowing full well that Laverne Cox plays a tattoo artist in Grandma, due out shortly. I'd say that this is more significant casting than almost any other trans role in recent memory, but I have to temper it with the knowledge that the first time I saw Laverne Cox in anything was as a sex worker in an episode of Law and Order SVU seven years ago. Still, seven years is pretty fast as social change goes.
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