TANGERINE: A Neo-Screwball Comedy

by Norm Nielsen

Being a middle-class white male, watching countless films has greatly expanded my world view. Films give me insights to different cultures, nationalities, genders, mindsets, and personalities I would never experience outside of my limited social sphere. Sean Baker’s 2015 Tangerine gave me a look into a subculture I know exists but certainly have never experienced: the daily life of Los Angeles’ transsexual sex workers.

Tangerine stars two transgender women of color played by – get this – trans women of color: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. The film opens on Christmas Eve in a Donut Time shop in sunny Hollywood with Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) discussing estrogen treatments and the way “all men cheat.” Sin-Dee has just been released from 28 days in jail for prostitution; Sin-Dee is about to tell close friend Alexandra that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has proposed marriage to her when Alexandra inadvertently says that Chester has a new girlfriend – another sex worker, one who has “a vagina and everything,” and worse, is white. That cheating is an occupational prerogative for a pimp doesn’t much concern Sin-Dee, who soon is hot in search of Chester and his mystery woman (Mickey O’Hagan as Dinah). Alexandra, the more pacific of the friends, agrees to accompany her, but only after Sin-Dee promises there will be “no drama” – an empty promise because Sin-Dee is a cyclone of rage and emotional venting. “The world can be a cruel place,” Alexandra consoles Sin-Dee. “Yes, it is cruel,” Sin-Dee replies. “God gave me a penis. That’s pretty cruel, don’t you think?”

Eventually Sin-Dee’s drama is too much for Alexandra who goes back to working the streets. Sin-Dee cannot afford a car. Tangerine follows her search for Chester and Dinah through Los Angeles’ streets on foot, on buses, and subway. The contemporary Los Angeles Sin-Dee and Alexandra inhabit is one rarely seen on film – a low-rent city of doughnut shops, coin-op laundromats, dive motels, bus rides, and jumped subway turnstiles.

While Sin-Dee is on her search for Chester and Dinah, Alexandra encounters a john who doesn’t pay and both have a subsequent run in with cops. She also has an oral sex scene with an Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) in a drive-through car wash over the hypnotic sounds of brushes slapping and dryers humming, as soap suds stream down the windshield – utterly remarkable and hilarious.

The various storylines converge in time-honored screwball comedy form at the Donut Time shop that night when Sin-Dee confronts Chester with all other principal characters present. The dialog is fast paced, razor sharp, and funny as hell.

In an interview, director Sean Baker said, “A lot of trans women of color are forced to resort to sex work. I want the audience to empathize enough to want to learn more.” Baker has created a film that never settles for obvious polarities or entrenches its characters in two-dimensional assumptions about their moral or strategic priorities. Baker shows the precarious poverty that informs their everyday choices, and the vulnerability that makes trans sex workers a magnet for abuse and heartbreak. Tangerine celebrates the hot mess of its characters’ lives with empathy and respect, never condescending to judge their actions. You don’t pity these girls, though you may wish something better for them.

Tangerine takes its title from the movie’s sunny, saturated cinematography, in which an orange candy glow coats the gritty streets. The effect is especially remarkable given that Baker and his director of photography, Radium Cheng, shot Tangerine using iPhone 5s with Moondog Labs anamorphic adapters (for a wide-angle image). Each iPhone 5 had the Filmic Pro app which captured 24 frames per second while allowing for control over white balance, focus, and exposure. The resulting images are remarkable; they found beauty in the dingiest locations. But the real advantage of using iPhones was the freedom gained by Baker and his production team to work in all kinds of locations without attracting attention. Tangerine is a scripted, fictional tale, and its editing and sound design are as sophisticated as any major motion picture, but the shooting style is pure cinéma vérité. And the budget for Tangerine was only about $100,000.

In post-production Baker used Da Vinci Resolve professional software to correct contrast and color saturation. The colors are wonderfully warm and saturated, creating a kind of hyper-realism that is a perfect complement to the main character’s penchant for drama. While not the first movie shot in this democratic medium, the accessibility of Tangerine may open up new worlds of low-budget cinematic possibilities. Anyone who loves movies should see this film on these grounds alone, regardless of whether the subject matter interests you. The future is here and now.


Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Video volunteer and Scarecrow Project Member.

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