Like Magic Mike XXL, Sean Baker’s Tangerine (currently playing at the Music Box Theatre) invokes American movies from the pretelevision era. The story is relatively inconsequential—an LA prostitute tracks down and confronts her two-timing lover and the woman with whom he was cheating on her—and the filmmakers don’t try to make it seem otherwise. They emphasize personality over plot, inviting viewers to bask in the star power of the lead performers (both of them larger-than-life personalities) and simply enjoy their company for an hour and a half. It’s a breezy film, but also a gritty one, rooted in everyday details that Baker and cowriter Chris Bergoch learned from transsexual prostitutes they got to know around the area where the movie was shot. And thanks to Baker’s fly-on-the-wall approach, Tangerine is disarmingly intimate as well.
Consider the poignant final sequence, which depicts a moment of everyday camaraderie with touching directness. (I won’t be discussing major plot points, but those who want to be surprised are encouraged to skip to the next paragraph.) At the end of a long, trying day—Christmas Eve, no less—a transsexual prostitute named Sin-Dee is humiliated when a stranger spills a cup of urine on her from a passing car. Her friend, another transsexual prostitute with whom she’d just been fighting, calls a truce and takes her to a nearby laundromat. At first Sin-Dee doesn’t want to wash her wig, because she’s embarrassed to be seen without it, but eventually she relents. To cheer her up, the friend takes off her wig too so that Sin-Dee can wear it as the washing machine runs. Being down-and-out isn’t so bad when there are other people willing to share in your plight—a simple lesson, perhaps, but it feels authentic, given the documentary authenticity of the performances and locations. Both characters are played by first-time performers whom Baker met while doing research, and the laundromat is real.
Tangerine was shot in public guerilla-style—many of the establishments in which the movie takes place were actually in operation while it was being filmed. The cast and crew were able to work surreptitiously because the movie was shot entirely on iPhones. In a recent Variety interview, Baker explained that the production looked like a handful of people making amateur videos of themselves (a common enough occurrence in downtown LA), and few passersby bothered to interrupt them. Yet the movie still feels like it was made on stolen time. A sense of urgency comes through—partly from Sin-Dee’s single-mindedness in pursuing her targets, partly from the relative novelty of the movie’s overall content. Simply put, there aren’t many American movies that take such a sympathetic, even humorous view of transsexual prostitutes. Tangerine benefits from the shock of the new, even while its themes of friendship and workaday blues are familiar.
The cell phone photography heightens this frisson between novelty and familiarity. At this point, everyone knows what video shot on a cell phone looks like, and they’re used to the intimacy that cell phone photography engenders. (Baker said that the phones made it easy for his first-time performers to act naturally, since they were used to performing for their own phones.) Yet to see the technology used in the service of this content renders the imagery surprising. Watching the film, I was reminded of documentaries I’d seen from the 1970s that were shot on the Sony Portapak, one of the first video cameras. Filmmakers at the time regarded this new, inexpensive technology as a means of documenting people who had been neglected by movies until then (radical political groups, immigrant communities, et cetera)—in a sense, they approached it as an ethnographic tool. Tangerine feels a bit like an ethnographic documentary in its focus on relatively isolated communities—not just LA street walkers, but also the family of an Armenian cab driver who factors heavily in the plot. Yet unlike much ethnographic filmmaking, Tangerine doesn’t create the impression of looking in on its subjects. The cameras are too close for that.