Film of the Week: Tangerine
American independent cinema thrives on its legends of risky feats pulled off on the cheap: its history can be written in tales of shopping trolleys used for tracking shots, of avant-gardists briefly finding a new medium in an obsolete toy camera, or of audacious outsiders risking their futures on a bunch of maxed-out credit cards. But even among these stories, Tangerine sounds like a miracle of enterprising economy: the praise it earned at its Sundance premiere this year was almost eclipsed by the excitement about its being shot on an iPhone 5s, using an $8 app called Filmic Pro.
Not surprisingly, Tangerine wasn’t quite that simple—the making of the movie also involved a Steadicam rig, some anamorphic adapter lenses, and much postproduction. That, however, is neither here nor there: Sean Baker’s film crackles with immediacy, the professionalism of its aesthetic polish melding perfectly with the rawness of its DIY ethic. And yes, Tangerine is every bit as juicy and tangy as the name suggests.
Baker’s film is best described as a street comedy—because the street is where it’s almost exclusively set. It takes place over a day and a night in Los Angeles, beginning in a drab Hollywood diner where two transgender prostitutes, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, are sitting to exchange gossip and donuts. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just finished a spell in prison, and it’s Christmas Eve—but it won’t be a quiet Christmas. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) lets slip that Sin-Dee’s pimp and lover Chester (James Ransone) has been dallying with another woman—and not just any woman, but an actual “fish,” a cisgender white female “with a vagina and everything.” All Alexandra knows is that her name begins with D—“Desiree? Destiny? Dominique?”—which means that no woman in L.A. whose name begins with D is safe from Sin-Dee’s fury. Sin-Dee storms off to find Chester and his lover, with Alexandra trailing behind, urging caution: “You must promise me that there’s not going to be any drama.” It’s a line that was inevitably fated to be a prime attraction in the film’s trailer, and it pays off beautifully later on, when another hooker stands on a corner roaring disapproval across the street at Sin-Dee: “She’s been out of jail for 24 hours, she’s already causing drama! Dra-maah!”
Meanwhile, Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is ferrying various clients across town, in a series of nicely inconsequential comic vignettes: an elderly woman who appears to have a dog in a box, but doesn’t; a blonde Asian girl taking Christmas selfies of herself; a shambling but handsome elderly gent who prides himself on his Cherokee origins, and is played by erstwhile screen cowboy Clu Gulager. Later, Razmik gives a ride to two dorks who have started their festive celebrating early, leading to some abrupt and spectacular vomiting—a tribute to the effectiveness of a well-timed jump cut (Baker also edited the film).
Tangerine is a peripatetic movie that drifts around the city streets and drifts around narratively, too, at first seemingly without direction; nevertheless, it’s given a very propulsive thrust by Sin-Dee’s mission. The camera coasts after her at breakneck speed as she storms down the Hollywood streets, quizzing all and sundry about Chester, while Alexandra takes the opportunity to tout her singing gig that evening: “Mary’s at 7, Mary’s at 7, Mary’s at 7,” she intones, mantra-like, before Sin-Dee abruptly yanks her. Then Sin-Dee disappears into the subway while Alexandra goes on walking; this is one of those walking-across-L.A. movies, of which there surely can’t be many (the last I remember was Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down). Part of the thrill of accompanying the duo derives from the cacophony that initially accompanies them—street noise, a furious soundtrack with music mixed in with typewriters and other racket, all of which soon has you feeling as buzzed-up as Sin-Dee. There’s a brief passage in which, incongruously, her march is accompanied by a grandiose burst of Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture”—only for it to be suddenly overlaid with a burst of frenzied drumming.
After the relative calm of its opening diner conversation, Tangerine barely stops for breath, the comedy getting ever wilder, but also more harshly derived from its heroines’ milieu: Alexandra faces up to a john who won’t pay up (“You forget I’ve got a dick too!”), while Razmik picks up an elegant black girl, then recoils in shock because it turns out that she doesn’t have the expected male equipment. Meanwhile, Sin-Dee finds a target for her fury in Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), a bedraggled shred of a prematurely aged gamine, and hauls her off on a terrifying bus ride (filmed on the fly, in front of surprised travelers, thanks to the iPhone’s mobility). And Alexandra gets to sing a festive song, coyly and rather affectingly—she’s not bad, but she’s by no means the star she’d like her friends to think.
Tangerine is pithy as hell and hugely entertaining from start to finish, but it’s also moving, partly because of what it shows of the daily struggle of its characters (Dinah being the most spectacularly ruined), partly because of the neediness of Sin-Dee, attached to a man who, needless to say, turns out to be a fairly abject dope. There’s a huge poignancy to the allegiances that form out of desperation and loneliness on these streets; having all but murdered her, Sin-Dee is happy to share a friendly crack pipe with Dinah. And the film ends with what may be the tenderest possible gesture of friendship between its heroines: one lends the other her wig.
The farce is brilliantly worked up, coming to a head when Razmik’s mother-in-law goes in search of him, wanting to know what’s keeping him from his family Christmas. She looks like the generic comedy matriarch of many a stage farce, but she offers the dialogue’s soberest insight: “Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie.” She’s right in a way, and you could say that half the film’s characters are beautifully wrapped lies—never what they seem, whether they are men on the way to being women, women whose hyper-feminine dress suggests that they are trans, or white men like Chester who put a lot of effort into dressing like black stereotypes. But Sin-Dee and Alexandra aren’t lying to anyone—their beautiful wrapping is their way of getting to the truth of who they are. In fact, Razmik’s mother-in-law and wife are wearing their own disguises, after a fashion—the former in leopard skin, the latter in a ludicrous Tina Turner hairdo. The line between women who started out as women, and women becoming women through performance and/or medical intervention, is as tenuous as it is in Almodóvar’s films, and Tangerine often feels rather like an L.A. version of the Spanish auteur’s early, raunchier work.
Shot in widescreen by Baker and co-DP Radium Cheung, Tangerine is also a great L.A. pop art movie, constantly offering dazzling city tableaux. The hot reddish tones that dominate the film inspired its title, and some images have the brassy intensity of David LaChapelle photos, even though they don’t appear to be as overtly composed as his pictures. There’s a fantastic shot of Sin-Dee on a bench, making the most of the orange-yellow bench, the bright blue sky, and her blonde hair. Another shot catches her stomping past a jail bonds office, with the wall sign “Collateral Not Always Necessary”—a pop-urbanism objet trouvé, but also a token of the precarious lives these characters lead. The visuals might also have come across as beautiful wrapping, if not for the rich goodies that come in the box: crackling dialogue from Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch, and tender and witty playing from the cast, notably the amazing lead duo.
Author’s Note: In my review of Amy last week, I unforgivably neglected to credit the film’s editor. It’s the sort of movie that you can’t really begin to discuss without imagining the editor wading through oceans of footage, from diverse sources and in diverse media. So let me correct my oversight: the editor’s name is Chris King, and his achievement is formidable.