Friday, June 12, 2015

Tangerine Dreaming

"I won't be fooled by a cheap cinematic trick." - Missing Persons

The fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival opened last night with a showing of dir. Sean Baker's Tangerine at the historic Texas Theatre. Baker's practice is to find a location and then develop characters and plot that best lay bare that site. In Tangerine everything intersects at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Highland Ave. in L.A. This physical intersection, though, is no mere two-dimensional trope.

There are far too many narrative threads to disentangle, plot structures to dismantle here, so let me just briefly mention some of them. The film begins with a homecoming of sorts on the day Sin-Dee is released from jail. It ends with having the very foundation of home pulled out from under the characters' feet. The rise and devastating fall of plot is punctuated by the tension (or "girl shit") between transsexual Sin-Dee and the "real fish" (whose name begins with D) that Sin-Dee's boyfriend/fiancé/pimp has been cheating on her with during her incarceration.

The structure of the family of choice (transsexual prostitutes, dealers, and street people) distorts–while perfectly mirroring the distortions of–the family of origin (the extended family of immigrant Armenians treading the furrow between ethnic identity and whitewashed American homogeneity). Members of both families seek to unmask as well as to collude in the masking of one another.

Technologically, this movie is significant because it was filmed on iPhones and actors were cast via Vine. With such social media savvy and such skill with personal technology, you would think that the film would be inundated with these prosthetic characters: the film as selfie writ large. The technological brilliance of this film, however, is how it strips the characters of such artifice, allowing for an almost overwhelming naturalism in and polished improvisation of the actors.

Much of the comedy stems from the fact that this is Christmas Eve. But except for the holiday meal and Christmas tree at the Armenians' apartment, there is no visual reference to this otherwise unbearably ubiquitous holiday. Despite the fact that this film takes place in L.A., it counters the old adage that nobody walks there. Unless, of course, we remember those other lines from that Missing Persons song: "Only a nobody walks in L.A."

Though there are indeed funny moments and comic lines, this is no campy romp. There are neither stock nor minor characters. Even if a character's screen time is only a few seconds, in that time you are induced to empathize, you are made to acknowledge her or his humanity. The surface humor is laced with a deeper, and insidious, pathos; what might otherwise be a throw-away scene casts a critical eye toward the injustices of gender, addiction, ethnicity, and sexuality. When wealth and celebrity can so easily lay siege to–and eclipse–the issues of identity politics, Tangerine offers a welcomed counter narrative.

Here, instead of an airbrushed covergirl, you get a sense of the depths of the economic, gendered, misogynist, racist, classist, homophobic (etc.) violence of our culture. Every line, every glance, reveals the easy, everyday kind of savagery of our systems of power. And you don't get off scot-free either: your gaze is implicated with several close-ups of the characters' asses as they walk across downtrodden Los Angeles. The audience's sympathy is wrenched even further with several shots of bare feet being dragged across the seedy concrete city. By the end of the movie we viscerally feel the characters' embodied pain.

The most dramatically delivered line: "I promise no drama." But we're glad the film didn't enforce that. Watching Tangerine was like seeing color for the first time or hearing a full spectrum of sound after years of the C Major scale. It is anti-Hollywood at its best. Hell, it's even Social Realism at its best, if we can use that term for a film saturated in orange. And even better: it is without any obvious ideological baggage. You'd be a fool not to be at Mary's at 7:00.

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